For the Birds Radio Program: Protecting Our Hearing with Earplugs
One of the physical qualities that often defines birders is a heightened sense of hearing. I’m not sure if we start out with it, making us more likely to notice and enjoy birds in the first place, or whether we develop it as a result of concentrating so much attention on birds, of a combination of the two. But most birders I know can hear and identify individual bird songs without even thinking about it, in movie soundtracks, during outdoor sporting events, over conversations at a picnic, while mowing the lawn, and with all kinds of other loud distractions. And often when we point out bird sounds to non-birders, they have trouble picking them out.
Being able to hear even the most delicate high-frequency songs by Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Blackburnian Warblers, and Cedar Waxwings, and being able to separate and count the songs of a whole variety of birds singing at the same time, comes at a price, though. That focus on songs makes the din of crowd noises, mechanical sounds, loudspeakers, and general cacophony of a theme park unbearable. In the four years since my son Joe started working at Disney World, I’ve found myself at Orlando theme parks an unsettling number of times. I keep track of the birds I see there, and even above the noise I can pick out cardinal and warbler call notes, mockingbird songs and mockingbird baby begging calls, and other bird vocalizations. But I’m also hearing so much noise that I get exhausted and frazzled very quickly.
Russ and I spent last in Florida with Russ’s sister and her husband visiting Joe, going on a few birding adventures, and spending a lot of time in theme parks. The first visit was to Universal Studios for their Halloween Horror Nights. Some of the sounds were so loud my ears were ringing for hours afterward, and I started worrying seriously about hearing loss. So the next morning I picked up some cheap earplugs at a 7-11 and wore them all the time when we were in theme parks for the rest of the week. And boy did they make a difference!
Oddly enough, I could hear the voices of everyone in our group perfectly well—apparently better than they could hear over the noise, because I heard them all asking “What?” far more often than I did. And when we went on rides, I could hear all the sounds I was supposed to hear without any of the background din.
Oddly enough, even with earplugs that supposedly block out 29 decibels, I could also still pick out warbler and cardinal call notes. It wasn’t as satisfying as listening to them at full volume, but blocking out the rest of the cacophony made it worth it. With the earplugs on, I wasn’t nearly as exhausted at the end of the day as I normally am after going to a theme park, and so we didn’t need to leave as early.
I guess in many ways wearing earplugs to block out excessive noise isn’t much different from wearing sunglasses to block out excessive light. I don’t know when we’re headed down to Florida again, but I’m keeping the unused earplugs in my suitcase so I’ll have them next time I need them. Between protecting my hearing and helping me cope with sensory overload, this cheap box of earplugs was one of the best investments I’ve ever made. Too bad we can’t buy them for the poor birds.