Following songs of invisible birds

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ON the morning of the hike, 11 students from Foreman High climb cautiously out of their school bus and huddle in a group at North Park Village, a 155-acre green belt on Chicago's northwest side. They can hear the hum of distant traffic and nearby bees. They can smell a strange potpourri of pollution and honeysuckle. And they can feel the breeze that makes leaves sing. But they can't see the shadows shimmying on the ground. Or the cloudless sky. Or far-off trees that pattern into lime lollipops. Or the birds rustling through the spring foliage. Nevertheless, for three hours the students pick their way through woods, meadows, and marshland, identifying about 30 bird species - all by sound, not sight.

The students, who are visually impaired, are learning to be ``birders.''

The outing is part of a program put together by Steve Waller, an education associate with the Chicago Academy of Sciences and director of the Canadian Wilderness Voyage Program, Ely, Minn. ``Every morning up in Minnesota, I'd bird for an hour. I kept track of all the bird species that I heard and all the bird species that I actually saw. The ratio turned out to be 7 to 1 in favor of sound over sight,'' Mr. Waller says.

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So to him, the activity is a natural for kids who can't see.

Right off, Waller splits the group into twos, a sighted volunteer with each visually impaired student. ``I'm gonna turn you loose now,'' he says. ``What you guys have to do is come up with some way for remembering those birdsongs.''

And so they did:

You'd better clean up your room, or else! ... I love, I love, I love to eat. ... Help. ... Who cooks for you?, ... Cream of Wheat. ... Potato chip. ... Please, please, please, Canada, Canada, Canada.

This silly sayings, called mnemonics, help the kids identify a particular bird's song. (The phrases and the corresponding birds are listed at the end of this article.)

The volunteers are equipped with pencil and paper for recording the mnemonics as students translate the chips and chirps into words. It's Waller's job to keep tabs on the whole singing show, so he can later supply the appropriate bird names.

``Hey,'' says someone, ``sounds like kids kissin' overhead.'' It's an observation that prompts a snicker or two, but there're no smoochers in the trees. It's a chimney swift that's here for the summer.

``Shhhhh. Sounds like a squeaky swing set,'' says another. Actually, it's one of the blue jay's calls. But from then on, the kids refer to the jay as ``that squeaky swing-set bird.''

For now, that's OK with Waller. He doesn't care if students make up their own names and mnemonics. Whatever is meaningful to them is fine with him. His first concern is that the young people remember the birdsongs - and associate them with types of terrain.

Just pulling a song out of the trees and pinning a bird's name on it isn't enough, though. Waller constantly prods students to match birds with habitats.

``You hear about the Indians having this mystic power of knowing what's over the hill. Well, you can do that, too,'' he tells them as they crunch along a trail covered with wood chips.

Listen for the birds, and they'll clue you in on the surroundings - both close and over the hill, he explains. Most of the kids are now adept at linking pigeons with city streets; song sparrows with open fields; robins with parks; downy woodpeckers and cardinals with suburbia; and gulls with Lake Michigan.

That's a sailing start for young people who spend much of their spare time indoors, listening to TV and radio.

Waller is a demanding teacher, not content to let a blind student slip into defeat with ``I don't know what it is. And I don't know where it is.'' Almost always he counters with ``We'll find it.'' And he leads a string of pairs onto less-traveled paths where undergrowth tickles legs and branches swat faces. But nobody seems to care. They're in search of the catbird that's making a ``mew.''

Waller's rapport with these kids didn't just pop out with the sunshine on that spring day. He and Cathy Hein, the academy's coordinator for special programs, worked hard with the students over a stretch of time, building up to the final outing at the height of the migratory season.

At the outset, the naturalist - in a subtle sort of way - let the non-seeing kids know they're well equipped for this activity because they're auditorily oriented. After all, once foliage is out in full, even the best of the sighted birders can't see through all the greenery, so they, too, resort to bird ``listening'' instead of ``watching'' much of the time. Birding is definitely a game in which the visually impaired can compete - and sometimes with an edge.

A key lesson is to memorize the sounds of 15 basic birds such as the robin, sparrow, starling, and the like. This cuts down on confusion when students finally go into the field, because they can simply shut out these more common sounds to concentrate on locating unusual ones - like the olive-sided flycatcher, which calls, ``Quick, three beers.''

Waller and Hein also let students measure and touch mounted bird specimens, because some lacked a solid concept of these creatures.

``If you've always been blind, you might easily think birds are the size of insects - or the size of a horse, for that matter,'' says Laurel Watson, coordinator of programs for the visually impaired in Chicago Public Schools.

``This particular nature program looks in depth at characteristics that are really meaningful to a blind person - size, texture, sound,'' she explains. Ms. Watson helped Waller and Hein ascertain students' special needs for the bird listening course, which was also presented to six visually impaired students at Bowen High. According to Watson, the program's big plus is that it teaches these handicapped young people about a variety of environments.

As the kids sit in knee-high grass at North Park Village, the warning cries of red-wing blackbirds pepper the air.

``Hear that?'' Waller asks. ``What do you know is nearby?''

``Marshland,'' comes the student chorus.

``All right!'' says Waller, obviously pleased. And he drags out his king-size rubber boots, ready to talk the kids into their next adventure. One by one, he wants them to don the boots and wade with him into the marsh to learn what it's really like. Their banter and laughter stop. The marsh is an unknown, more scary than unlit streets to those who see.

Then, tentatively, Joe Abernathy puts aside his cane and reaches out for the boots. This senior, who has been blind since birth, is clearly a hero among his peers. Squish, squish, and slop, into the marsh he goes. He touches the water and the cattails, and now he truly knows where the red-winged blackbird lives.

Others follow in his footsteps to discover that unknowns aren't always awful. But a few hide faces in hands or pull sweat shirts over heads. To them, the marsh is one step too far - for now.

Here are the answers to the bird calls mentioned in the above story:

You'd better clean up your room, or else: yellow warbler.

I love, I love, I love to eat: Nashville warbler.

Help!: warning cry of red-winged blackbird.

Who cooks for you? barred owl.

Cream of Wheat: tufted titmouse.

Potato chip: goldfinch.

Please, please, please, Canada, Canada, Canada: white-throated sparrow.

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