Jun 7, 2021

Birding By Ear

Beacon Stories

From stargazing to bird watching, Michael has been an enthusiast of all things science from the age of 12. When Michael was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at 30 years old, he knew he wasn’t going to give up his dream of becoming a record-setting birder. In his own words, Michael shares how he’s overcome his vision loss and continued to pursue his birding passions with “birding-by-ear.”

Get updates on Beacon Stories

By Michael Hurben

As a child, I had good vision. I know this because, at age twelve, I discovered astronomy. I’d begged my parents for a cheap K-mart telescope and was enthralled the moment I pointed it at Saturn and saw its rings. I joined the Salt Lake Astronomical Society, whose adult members would kindly give me rides to “star parties” far from the glare of the city lights that washed out the skies. At these events, dozens of enthusiasts would gather to share the views through their massive telescopes. One such outing in the Uintah Mountains ran all night. Every few hours, I would take a break from the scopes and lie back to stare at the vault of stars and brilliant Milky Way extending horizon to horizon. I couldn’t have slept if I’d wanted to.

For years, I didn’t want to acknowledge my low vision, and I failed to understand it as an opportunity to help others that face similar hurdles.

Michael Hurben

In time I would do less of this – I was becoming a teenager, after all, and the world of teenage concerns beckoned. By eighteen, I was a short-order cook, a failed wannabe rock star, and a high-school dropout. The affinity for science was still there, but no one in my family had ever attended college, and I had dubious credentials. Luckily there was the GED route, and once accepted at the University of Utah, I chose the practical (and employable) field of physics. Ten years later, I had a doctorate. This experience convinced me that hard work was enough, regardless of where one started from. I had thought it would be my biggest challenge, but it was mere practice for a greater one that my genes had in store for me.

During graduate school, another part of the natural world captured my attention. Upon seeing a woodpecker at the park one day, I inexplicably needed to know what it was called. I promptly visited the bookstore, bought a field guide, and have not been the same since. It was too late in my college career to change majors, but I knew that searching for every species illustrated in that book (and others) would be an obsession that my day job would enable. Then I met my wife-to-be Claire, who had been “birding” since she was a child. Why do people become so enamored with birds? They check a lot of boxes: colorful, musical, intelligent, often elusive, the flying descendants of dinosaurs. If you are the sort that likes to make lists and checkboxes, birding provides a satisfying, lifelong scavenger hunt, the collecting of experiences. And if you desire even more challenge and more tangible results, try taking quality photographs of some of them.

Stargazing was in abeyance when I was in my twenties. When I looked up at the night sky, I saw very little, but I had an explanation: it was from the glare of the city lights. I knew that in some remote place, the full glory of the constellations would be waiting. Then one night, I took Claire to a star party in the Wyoming mountains, and I knew something was wrong: the wilderness sky held no more stars than the city sky did. Peering through one of the large telescopes directed at the tenuous Veil Nebula, I grew more disturbed. Everyone else was delighted by how gorgeous and bright it appeared, but when I looked in the eyepiece, I saw... nothing. Perhaps a couple of stars, where there should have been a field full of them, and certainly no silky strands of glowing interstellar gases, crossing the view just like the Milky Way should have been crossing the sky above. How was everyone else seeing this? I kept my mouth shut.

Then other signs appeared. Ugly, sliding arcs of light would sometimes dance before my eyes. I drove into a fence that seemed to have suddenly sprung into existence. I told the family doctor about this, and he said, “Look at my face; how many fingers am I showing?” Apparently, he was holding one hand off to the side. “Fingers?” I asked, “What fingers?” He sent me to a specialist for a visual field test, a retinal examination, and the grim diagnosis: retinitis pigmentosa (RP). It was 1997, and I was thirty. I went home and told Claire that I was going blind. It was terrifying.

The idea of losing one’s sight is horrible regardless of what one does at work or outside of work. Vision seems so absolutely essential. But there was nothing to do except keep plugging away at our plans. We had already started a family (luckily, neither of our two sons have shown any retinal dysfunction). I would have a satisfying work career and manage to keep my low vision from affecting it too much. I am fortunate. Twenty-four years after my diagnosis, my visual field has worsened, but only slightly. I still have about fifteen degrees if the light is good, but I see nothing in the dark.

Michael Claire Birding in Germany

Michael and Claire while birding in Germany.

I accepted the loss of the glorious night sky. But I was not going to give up trying to be a record-setting birder. “Birder” is, by the way, preferable to “bird-watcher,” which implies that sight is needed – it isn’t. What all birders do, whether they simply put out feeders in their yard, or are globe-crossing obsessives, is identify. This usually means noting colors, patterns, shapes, etc., and then comparing with illustrations in a field guide (or the images in your head, once you are experienced) - but this is not the only way. Bird’s voices give away their identity: every species has unique calls and songs. There are even species that look identical and can only be told apart aurally.

“Birding-by-ear” has allowed me to avoid the discouragement that might otherwise come with the territory. To get more birds, one typically travels to destinations with high species diversity: these are often densely wooded areas in the tropics, such as the Amazon Basin. To see the camouflaged denizens of dark forests can be tricky even with normal eyesight. With RP, the poor light levels, deep foliage, and the transitory nature of elusive birds zipping through can be exasperating. Once, in Ecuador, frustrated with not seeing the birds that others were, I planned to quit and find a pursuit more amenable to my limitations. International trips are not cheap, and if I was to going to not see birds, well, I could do that by staying home. That is when I decided to become a student of bird voices, realizing that by recording them and identifying them that way, I had a solution.

What’s more, recordings made in the field are not just a way to add species to your list. Audio files can be uploaded to various repositories and become part of vast, shared libraries that are valuable to biologists who study bird vocalizations. With inexpensive digital recording tools (even a smartphone will do), birding can be more than a walk in the woods; it becomes a form of non-destructive specimen collecting. One of the most prolific recordists of birds in South America is Juan Pablo Culasso of Uruguay. He has been blind since birth. You can read about his story and work at www.sonidosinvisibles.com.uy.

So long as I have some vision left, I still try to see every bird I can, of course, and under good conditions or with help, I often do. Sometimes birds even stay put long enough for me to point a camera at them. But I have learned to be content with what they give me, and if I can record audio of a bird, even without seeing it, I will add it to my “life list.” The challenge that I set for myself is to see or hear at least half of the 10,700 plus species on the planet – I am just shy of 4,500 as of this writing. Some birders have told me that they would never include in their life list a bird that they identified by voice but didn’t see. Yet they don’t feel this way about birds they’ve seen but not heard. Why is that? I ask them. Why is vision valued more than hearing?

For years, I didn’t want to acknowledge my low vision, and I failed to understand it as an opportunity to help others that face similar hurdles. I’ve been working to change that, so I was thrilled to be contacted by Freya McGregor, an Occupational Therapist specializing in low vision and the coordinator of a new non-profit called Birdability. Per their mission statement, they focus on “... removing barriers to access for birders with mobility challenges, blindness or low vision, intellectual or developmental disabilities (including autism), mental illness, being Deaf or Hard of Hearing and other health concerns.” My aim in volunteering with them is not just to help those who have steeper challenges than I do but to introduce birding to people who might otherwise have never considered it due to a disability.

Learning that you have vision loss, and living with it, is not easy. But it is also an opportunity to be part of an exclusive group: those who overcome. Whether the obstacles are due to disease, injury, or persistent societal biases, the stories of the individuals who have surmounted them are the most compelling ones we have. Try to consider a disability not in terms of what it might limit but rather as a platform for greater influence. With his body wrecked by ALS, Stephen Hawking not only made great advancements in physics but was also an advocate for all disabled people. He wrote, “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet.” I’d add that if you cannot see the stars, then make something new and dazzling with your words and actions. You have more power than you think.