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Seeing and Hearing 👁 👂

by Dr. Oakleigh Thorne, II

As a naturalist, I depend greatly on all my senses, but particularly my ability to see and hear. This may seem obvious to most of you, but it is amazing to me how many people are oblivious to the sights and sounds of nature when they go outside. What bothers me even more is to see those who purposefully “tune out” nature by wearing some sort of electronic device (such as headphones) even though they are outside and birds are singing everywhere!

When I was only eight-years-old, I was usually out in the woods looking for birds’ nests or some other exciting discovery in nature. I would wait for the builder of the nest to appear and then try to identify what kind of bird it was.

Sometimes I would hear a bird singing but not know what kind. I would then try to track it down, see it, and look it up in my bird guide book. Sometime when you’re out in nature, try standing still, closing your eyes, and listening. You will notice that your sense of hearing gets much sharper. You notice the direction from which various sounds are coming and whether a particular sound is nearby or far away. I always teach my students this trick in order to improve their ability to hear.

As I grew up, I learned even more about birds from my high school biology teacher, Frank Trevor, a well-known faculty member at Millbrook School in Millbrook, NY. He was a Cornell-trained ornithologist (a person who studies birds). He would take us on field trips and point out different bird songs. We then had to guess what kind they were. Sometimes we would guess correctly and sometimes he would finally have to tell us the answer. I got really good at knowing my bird songs.

When you get good enough, you can even do a Breeding Bird Census entirely by ear! When you hear a bird song in the spring or early summer, it is only the male bird that sings. This is to set up and defend his breeding territory and to attract a female. So a singing male means a nesting pair of that kind of bird. When I was a senior in college, I did a Breeding Bird Census of the entire 360-acre Audubon center in Greenwich, CT using this method. Birds sing the most at daybreak, so I got up at 4 am each morning for three weeks and usually surveyed 20 acres a day. My hearing sense really improved!

I grew up in the 1930s… before television. We listened to radio. All the information was taken in through one sense only…hearing. You had to imagine what was happening in a radio drama. The sound-effects person was very important. Later, (in the 1960s) I produced many silent film-loops for education. These had no sound track. They were silent moving images. All the information was taken in through one sense only…seeing. Nobody was telling you what to see. You made your own observations. There was no language barrier either; therefore, you could send these films to any country and they would be understood and useful.

The point I am trying to make here is that sometimes it is best to just use your hearing and other times it is best to just use your seeing ability. You usually use both these senses together, but it’s good to be able to use just one of them at certain times. Get good at seeing and hearing!

Dr. Thorne is founder and honorary president of Thorne Ecological Institute in Boulder. They have helped “connect kids to nature” for more than 55 years. For more information about Thorne Natural Science School classes for children, check or e-mail or call (303) 499-3647.

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