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Following songs of invisible birds

By Hattie ClarkStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 1, 1987


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.

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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.

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.