Birdwatching with hearing loss: How hearing aids help

By | November 11, 2020

What sounds do we love? Hearing-aid maker Widex did a survey, asking 1,621 adults in the United States and seven other countries to select the sounds that mattered the most to them. Music and voices topped the list.

If you’re a nature-lover, the third most popular sound won’t be a surprise: birds. Among the British, bird song was the favorite sound of all. 

Even in a big city, you can hear birds if you listen. I live in New York City and my block is full of chirping in the spring. Over the years, though, you may notice that the joyful noise of birds singing may become dimmer or stop. That’s because as we age, we tend to lose our perception of higher-frequency sounds, including the sparkles in a robin’s call. Another giveaway is when small children become challenging to understand.

A bird perched in a tree

Hearing aids can help. Nathan Pieplow, the faculty sponsor for the Bird Club at the University of Colorado, acquired hearing aids in August 2020. He hoped they would allow him “to hear all the birds that the 20-year-olds in the club can hear every time we are in the field together,” he wrote me, and they did make a difference.

Bird songs provide clues for birders, but what if you can’t hear well?

Central Park, in the middle of New York, is one of the 10 best places in the country to see birds migrating up the East Coast in the spring and fall. My neighbor Miriam Rakowski, who leads a group of avid birders on Central Park tours, has sighted some 3,000 species of birds on her trips around the world. Their sounds are an early clue.

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“You often hear birds way before seeing them, particularly in the spring,” she told me, and she can recognize the calls of birds that make Central Park their home. Their sounds may tell her where to look, though not always. “Many birds can throw sounds creating the illusion that it is coming from a different direction,” she explained. To identify migrant birds, she studies their songs and calls. But Rakowski, who does not own hearing aids, has noticed that her hearing range for bird songs is shrinking. 

How hearing aids can help birders 

Most of us get hearing aids to hear human voices more clearly, and our aids are programmed accordingly. So let your audiologist know if you’re a birder. You can enhance the higher notes on a specific setting or choose a brand of hearing aid that is more precise. In general, the more premium models by all the major hearing aid manufacturers can be programmed for very specific settings.

A bird singing.
The high-frequency calls of many birds
​​​​​​are especially hard to hear when you
​​​​​​have age-related hearing loss.

Pieplow thinks his hearing aids have narrowed the gap between him and his college student companions, but aren’t a “game-changer.” He chose “the high-end hearing aids that have a pretty precise frequency response because that’s what I thought would help my birding the most,” he added. He can better detect the sounds of birds while wearing his hearing aids, but still has trouble “figuring out where the sound is coming from.”

One reason may be that he’s only had his hearing aids a few months. Hearing aids take weeks or months to get used to.

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Small birds also move super fast. Hearing aids may take 5-8 milliseconds to process sound. The delay can register as an unnatural sound. However, the newest aids are faster, processing sound in as little as half a millisecond. For a serious birder, that slight difference may be meaningful. If you can, try out a new pair of hearing aids on a birdwatching expedition. You should have an option to return them if you are dissatisfied.

Professional wildlife bird photographer Judy Zehenener found that her new premium hearing aids made a huge difference. She could distinguish songs that she hadn’t heard in years, including the high-pitched songs of the finch and sparrow.

“Without my hearing aids, I was unknowingly missing out on so much of the richness and beauty of nature. With hearing aids, the painting is fully restored,” she said in a news release about Widex’s survey.

Test your hearing: Can you hear these birds?

If you have age-related hearing loss, medically known as presbycusis, you might not be able to hear the high-pitched song of the Golden-crowned Kinglet at all (click on the link to hear him and test whether your hearing might be affecting your birding). High-frequency hearing loss can also be caused by things like noise exposure.

Another problem might be hearing only the low pitches in a song that mixes high and low notes. Pieplow explains that two high notes distinguish the “fee-bee, fee-bay” song of the Carolina Chickadee from the “fee bee” sound of a Black-capped Chickadee. If you can’t hear very well above 6 kHZ, you’ll miss them. Presbycusis could also make a harmonically complex nasal tone sound simpler, he observed. To hear illustrations of these effects, click the links on his blog, Earbirding.

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With her especially programmed hearing aids, Laura Erickson in Duluth, Minnesota, the author of 12 books about birds and a columnist for BirdWatching magazine, writes that she’s better able to hear Cedar Waxwings, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Brown Creepers, and Blackburnian, Cape May, and Blackpoll Warblers. Her aids also help her distinguish bird sounds against background noise like a loud wind or wave.

high-frequency hearing loss symptoms

Mild hearing loss? Consider a sound amplifier

Note: If you only use your hearing aids for birding, or going out to dinner occasionally, they won’t work as well. Hearing is a brain activity, and your brain needs sufficient exposure to sound to adjust. You need to wear your aids at least a few hours a day. 

If your hearing loss is too mild for you to consider using a hearing aid regularly, you may want to buy a personal sound amplifier, which cost much less than hearing aids. David Benson, a National Park Service Ranger Naturalist in Glacier National Park, in Montana, tried out three brands and ultimately decided to keep Etymotic Beans, which he writes gave him the best ability to both hear birds and then find them.

“They’ve proven through my tests and through lots of time in the field that they really help me hear the birds,” he writes. “And, importantly, they help me find the birds after hearing them.”

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