Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Day I Ruined My Hearing

Le Conte's Sparrow
Le Conte's Sparrow
As I’ve been going through old radio programs for archiving, I made the disconcerting discovery that I’d unwittingly done a program in November 2006 about the exact day that I permanently damaged my hearing. Up through 2006, I was easily finding Le Conte’s Sparrows by song along my mother-in-law’s driveway in Port Wing, Wisconsin—my hearing was still quite good to pick them out easily. Most of my life, I’ve been the first in birding groups to pick up distant bird songs—especially high frequency ones—only lagging behind others occasionally on the low-frequency sounds of Ruffed Grouse, American Bitterns, and Great Horned Owls. I first discovered the Rufous Hummingbird in my yard in November 2004 because I could hear her beating wing beats out a tightly closed window facing my back—I remembered that thanks to one of those old radio programs.

Halloween Horror Night at  Universal Studios in Orlando in 2006 was apparently the event that ruined my ears. I recounted this experience on "For the Birds" long before I realized my hearing was permanently damaged—my point was to remind listeners that to protect our hearing we should wear earplugs at loud events.

My son works at Disney World. When we go there, I always have my binoculars along to see what wild birds I can—Swallow-tailed Kites circling on thermals over the parking lots, a Limpkin wandering along the shore of a stream on the parade route, Great Egrets and White Ibies mooching at every outdoor eatery. I’m not big on the rides and attractions, but the give-and-take of family excursions requires me to not complain, just as no one is allowed to complain when it’s my turn to pick out the day’s activities and I drag them all to Lake Kissimmee State Park, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, or the Viera Wetlands. 

But that Halloween Horror Night at Universal in 2006 was the loudest of Orlando's attractions I’ve ever dealt with. I said on that "For the Birds" program that my ears were ringing for hours afterward. I should have realized at the time that that was a serious symptom—I didn’t put two and two together until I came across that old program this week.

The following spring, in May 2007, I went to Oklahoma and spent time in the Wichita Mountains with Joe Grzybowski. I had trouble picking out some distant Black-capped Vireos that he had no trouble hearing. That was the first time in my life I’d birded with anyone who could hear things before I could. Later that month was when I first noticed that Troy Walters, my co-instructor for a birding elderhostel, was picking out birds before I was. So yep—it was Halloween 2006 that my hearing went south.

The spring and early summer of 2007 was the first year I didn’t hear any Le Conte’s Sparrows in Port Wing. It was also the second year that I DID hear one on my Breeding Bird Survey, at pretty close range. And that was the trick—I knew I could still hear them because I could pick out one at very close range, but when we start losing our hearing at a particular frequency, it doesn’t go all at once—we just need to be closer and closer to the sound source to pick it up. My auditory world was shrinking without my being aware. I didn’t realize that the lower numbers of individual warblers I was hearing on my survey route were more likely a result of my hearing loss than of a decreasing number of birds singing. 

Fortunately, the next year I started working at Cornell and had to give up my Breeding Bird Survey route, so data based on my damaged hearing was limited to one year. Ironically, the person who took over my route has hearing more damaged than mine, but for a long time he’s been using both hearing aids and Lang Elliott’s wonderful SongFinder—the pocket-sized device and headphones that lower high-frequency songs—so the Breeding Bird Survey results for this route are back on track and safe in his hands.

It took years for me to finally accept that I wasn’t hearing as well as I used to, and it wasn’t until 2015 that I finally got both hearing aids and the SongFinder. They’re making a huge difference in my ability to pick up distant birds again. But in the future, if anyone wants me to go along to a Halloween Horror Night, I'll just say no.

Black-capped Vireo
Black-capped Vireo