Blind birdwatchers learn to see by hearing sounds

(CBS News) DEARBORN, Mich.- Yogi Berra once said, "You can observe a lot by watching." To which we will add, it's amazing what you can see by listening -- as evident by this particular group in Dearborn, Michigan.

The white canes would seem to be an unusual accessory for a group of bird watchers.

"That one's up in the treetops!" said one of them.

"Oh, I heard a cardinal - they're everywhere!" said another.

Donna Posont is a field guide in Michigan who leads a group of blind birdwatchers and helps them recognize birds through sound. CBS News

They listen, because they're blind, as is their guide Donna Posont.

(Click on image of birds at left to match the bird to the bird call)

"My whole idea is getting 'em out here, enjoying nature, listening to the birds, and caring about it," said Posont, "so maybe they'll care enough to make a difference in the world."

It's called "birding by ear," and Posont discovered it when she first started hiking alone four years ago. Recorded bird sounds help her identify and sometimes sing with her new friends.

"Coke-koree," Posont sang, followed by a response from a bird. "It's echoing!" Posont said with a laugh.

Watch a web extra piece on "birding by ear" below:

Cornell library's recordings provide audio guide for birders

Now as field services director for Opportunities Unlimited for the Blind, Posont helps the sightless understand the unseen.

The bird calls are memorized in class by assigning each chirp or screech a word or phrase which the kids can mimic when they venture outside -- amid the real cardinals, blue jays, woodpeckers and blackbirds.

Kids like seventh-grader Austin Shepherd believe this is one area where the blind have an advantage.

"A lot of sighted people always boast, 'Hey, we can see the birds. We can see'em up close -- yadda, yadda yadda,' he said. "But you know with us, it's a lot more special because we can hear lots of different birds at once."

For Posont, it's not about the birds. "It's about building confidence to be successful blind people later in life," she said.

She acknowledged she is sort of opening their eyes in a way. "Yeah! The eyes of their heart," Posont said.

So that from deep in the wild, they can hear the call of the world.

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  • Dean Reynolds

    Dean Reynolds is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Chicago.