Visually impaired learn to‘bird-watch’by sound

Nina Vargas, a member of the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired Young Explorers camp, feels the wing of a live ringneck dove during the camp’s first-ever visit to the Illinois Raptor Center in rural Decatur, Ill. Enlarge photo

JIM BOWLING, (Decatur, Ill.) Herald & Review/Assoc

Nina Vargas, a member of the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired Young Explorers camp, feels the wing of a live ringneck dove during the camp’s first-ever visit to the Illinois Raptor Center in rural Decatur, Ill.

DECATUR, Ill. (AP) – When you can’t see, you have to depend on your ears more, and the group of campers in the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired’s Young Explorers camp learns fast.

Illinois Raptor Center Program Director Jacques Nuzzo’s parents are both deaf, so he has a personal interest in helping people who have disabilities. He said he watched his parents endure poor treatment all his life.

“I agreed to this program because I just wanted these kids to know that you can enjoy the outdoors, no matter what your disability is,” he said.

When the Jacksonville school contacted the center about a program for visually impaired and blind children, he had to create one just for them, and his idea was to teach them to recognize birds by their songs.

“When I’m out in the woods, the birds are up in the trees, and I have to identify them by their sounds,” Nuzzo told the children. “Eighty percent of bird identification is done by sound. You hear them before you see them.”

The wooded acreage surrounding the raptor center contains a variety of common and uncommon Illinois birds, and behind the center’s office building, Nuzzo and Executive Director Jane Seitz have set up bird feeding stations with different foods to attract even more of them.

When robins or sparrows sang above the children’s heads during the first part of the program, Nuzzo identified them, and using his iPad, played recordings of other calls those birds make. He called the songs of common birds “background noise” when he’s out bird-watching, because he wants to encounter less-common birds and had to learn to filter out the sounds of the common ones first.

The youngsters, ages 7 to 11, attend regular schools during the year with vision assistance in varying degrees, said Kathy Turner, co-director of activities. The camp provides the children with experiences they might not have otherwise.

Between playing bird sounds and calling their attention to the live birds flying around them, Nuzzo told them about the birds’ habits, let them handle some artifacts such as a raptor’s skull and a hawk’s wing and told stories of his own bird-watching. He heard a great blue heron call once in the presence of a friend and remarked that it sounded like a pterodactyl.

“How do you know?” he said the friend asked because pterodactyls have been extinct for quite long time and nobody knows what they sounded like. “OK,” Nuzzo admitted, “it sounds like I imagine a pterodactyl would sound.”

Herons, condors and vultures have no vocal cords, he said, so they don’t sing.

Seitz brought out one of the center’s ring-necked doves for the children to touch. That was camper Mackenzie Strong’s favorite part of the afternoon.

“I liked her because she’s like me,” said Mackenzie, 10, who attends St. Anastasia School in Waukegan. “She’s albino.”

It wasn’t long before Nuzzo could ask the children which bird they had just heard, and they could tell him, even when a white-breasted nuthatch called from one of the feeders. He’d only played that call for them once and told them the way to remember it is to think of laughter.

He passed around a golden eagle egg for them to handle – gently – and told them an eagle at the center is a prolific egg-layer.

“She lays eggs like a tennis ball launcher,” he said, making the children laugh. “I never dreamed of a day when one of my problems would be an abundance of eagle eggs.”

He took them to visit some of the raptors that live at the center, demonstrated how the barred owl Octavia will return his call, and then called to the eagle Ruby – the prolific egg-layer – by name so she would squawk in response.

Eagles, in spite of their size, have a relatively squeaky and small voice, he said.

Ethan Edwards, 9, of Bloomington-Normal liked Ruby best of all the birds, for patriotic reasons.

“Eagles are the symbol of our country,” he said.

From left, students Colton Weimer, Nina Vargas and Autumn Stengel from Illinois School for the Visually Impaired Young Explorers camp react to the playing of recorded bird calls at the Illinois Raptor Center. Enlarge photo

JIM BOWLING, (Decatur, Ill.) Herald & Review/Assoc

From left, students Colton Weimer, Nina Vargas and Autumn Stengel from Illinois School for the Visually Impaired Young Explorers camp react to the playing of recorded bird calls at the Illinois Raptor Center.

“I just wanted these kids to know that you can enjoy the outdoors, no matter what your disability is,” said Jacques Nuzzo, program director at the Illinois Raptor Center, who distributes bird feathers for visually impaired children to feel. Enlarge photo

JIM BOWLING, (Decatur, Ill.) Herald & Review/Assoc

“I just wanted these kids to know that you can enjoy the outdoors, no matter what your disability is,” said Jacques Nuzzo, program director at the Illinois Raptor Center, who distributes bird feathers for visually impaired children to feel.