Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

My new bionic ears! (Well, actually, my hearing aids.)

Golden-crowned Kinglet
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Every year or two, I need new eyeglasses. My deteriorating vision isn’t very noticeable from day to day or month to month, so when I put on a new pair of glasses, the clarity always surprises and satisfies me. My near vision is still fairly good, so at home I hardly ever wear glasses. I can recognize most of my normal birds out the window without glasses or binoculars, not because I can see any nuances in plumage but because I have so much experience looking at them that I recognize the usual suspects by size, behavior, and general color patterns. It’s pretty much the way we can recognize a stop sign from quite a distance, unless our vision is really bad. We may not be able to actually read the letters or see the corners to be sure the shape is an octagon, but stop signs tend to be in the exact same position on street corners, and no other signs are that color and general shape. My glasses help me read all kinds of signs, and I can enjoy the nuances of bird plumage, especially when brought even closer with binoculars.

Although hearing is every bit as important as vision in some endeavors, from music to birding, we tend to ignore hearing loss way more easily than we ignore deteriorating vision. For at least a decade, I’ve been noticing that I’ve lost acuity in my high frequency hearing. I still hear the vast majority of bird songs other people do, but now can only pick up the highest frequency songs—Golden-crowned Kinglets, Brown Creepers, Blackburnian Warblers, etc.—if the birds are very close. Two years ago I actually watched a nearby Golden-crowned Kinglet singing away, but I couldn’t hear a single note. And last winter when I was mixing a radio program using a Cedar Waxwing recording I’ve used many times over the years, I could not hear any of the middle section of the recording, even though I knew exactly what it was supposed to sound like. It was time to face up to the truth, and on March 25, I finally did it—I got hearing aids.

I didn’t know quite what to expect when the audiologist helped me put them in, but at first I couldn’t even tell if they were working. In the same way that I can see anything around the house without my glasses, and nearby things look almost identical with or without my glasses, sounds in my audiologist’s quiet office sounded virtually identical with and without my hearing aids. The one thing that was noticeably different was my own voice—I was hearing it resonating inside my head like always, but also hearing it a bit closer to how it sounds to other people. Hearing my own voice like that is something I deal with all the time when producing my radio show, so it didn’t seem like that big of a deal. I’m sure if my hearing was worse, I’d have appreciated more differences right off, but for me the immediate change was subtle.

American Robin

When my mother-in-law and I were leaving her audiologist after she got hearing aids for the first time, a robin was singing, and she said that was the first robin she’d heard in years. Oddly enough, she didn’t think that had anything to do with the hearing aids—she said that robins just didn’t live around her place in Port Wing, even though I heard them every time I was there in spring and summer. So far, I’ve never had trouble hearing robins, but with my hearing aids in, their song is clearer and lovelier again—the way they were when I was in my 20s. Apparently, little by little I’d lost the high frequency harmonics that give the song some brilliance, even as I heard the midtones just fine.

When you get two digital hearing aids with directional microphones, like mine, the programming allows the hearing aids to work together to detect and suppress background noise even as they augment bird songs and human voices. In my own backyard, the basic background noises—people’s furnaces, chain saws, cars and trucks, wind, doors slamming, and more—seem to have grown louder as the basic bird songs grew quieter. Now, with my hearing aids, I feel like I’ve gone back in time to when I was a new birder, when it was so easy to pick out each different sound. Only it’s even better now, because I have so much more experience at recognizing the sounds while now getting so much pleasure in hearing them so clearly again. Like getting a new pair of glasses, my world is suddenly crisper and more brilliant—only in the auditory rather than visual realm.

Watching TV is much more enjoyable now, and listening to the radio in the car is wonderful. The volume and people’s voices don’t sound very different when I take the hearing aids out or put them back in again, yet with them in, I hear the enunciation much better. I also hear bird recordings much more clearly.

Next week my audiologist will be making a few tweaks on the programming for when I’m using the hearing aids specifically for birding, and soon the first kinglets, creepers, and waxwings will return so I can test how well they work for that. I’ll also be testing another kind of hearing aid specifically designed for birders—one that lowers the frequency of high-pitched sounds. It’ll be interesting to see which I prefer when looking for hard-to-hear species like Le Conte’s Sparrows. But so far my bionic ears are a complete success.

(I have not compared different brands and models of high quality digital hearing aids. Mine are the Phonak Audéo V90.)