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I grew up with many, many ear infections as a child. In my early 30s, I had a surgery on my right ear called a mastoidectomy. It was greatly successful and I recovered 100% of my hearing. But about 20 years later I noticed a mild decline in hearing. I was straining to hear Cedar Waxwings and Brown Creepers. In another five years I was straining to hear Bay-breasted, Blackpoll, and Cape May Warblers. Aargh! I thought I was losing some high range frequency.
But what those around me knew—and much faster than I was willing to admit—was that my degradation in hearing was more than just high frequency. I was losing hearing in all ranges. And my right ear—the ear that had the surgery—was failing faster than my left ear. By age 60 I was having problems occasionally hearing people’s conversation. It was very hard to accept. It was hard to come to grips emotionally. I felt like the hearing that once gave me an advantage as birder was now less than average.
Not too long ago I remember watching a Black-throated Green Warbler open its bill to sing. All I heard was two buzzy notes, zee-zee. I was stunned. The full breeding song for that species in Ohio sounds something like zee-zee-zee-zu-zeeee. I watched that bird sing for what seemed like a long time. I was filled with disbelief and then disappointment.
To complicate matters I have had serious difficulty with colds/allergies from late fall through early spring. If I don’t heal within a couple weeks it seemed like I would develop ear infections and then temporary hearing loss that was very dramatic. Maybe you have seen me at a birding festival wearing headphones just so I can hear human conversation.
I did see a specialist. I got my ears tested. The news? The surgery is starting to degrade in my right ear. And there is no fix. Hearing aids are in my future. But I currently don’t feel like my ears are bad enough yet to deserve going for the expense of hearing aids. But I sometimes still strain at phone calls and human conversation and I’m missing out on lots of birds. What should I do? Well, I found a temporary solution. It is not perfect. But it does help. And it may help some of you, too. I have wanted to write about this for a couple years and have just put it off. Until now.
I tried a handheld parabola. That increased my ability to hear everything. But it required the use of one of my hands. And using binoculars with the other hand was less than pleasurable. It was the best boost for hearing, but I compromised ability to see birds with only one available hand.
I tried a Walkers Ear from Cabelas. It was ok. But it didn’t stay on my ear securely. And the battery compartment was small. And the switch to turn on high frequency was maddeningly difficult for me. High frequency was either on or off. It sounded very tinny and thin. And it magnified annoying sounds to an irritating degree. Sounds like folks walking on gravel or shuffling in dry leaves would test my patience. And even the sound of rain jacket material crinkling bothered me. It did help my hearing. It did help with higher frequency. But the loose fit and the irritating sounds made it less than fantastic for me.
I continued to try new things. I bought a headset with a microphone on top designed for hunters. It was big and clunky. But this was better for me than the Walkers Ear. But they were heavy. In hot weather I could not wear them long as my ears would sweat. In fact, I couldn’t wear them for more than 2-3 hours. The pressure on the ears made them moderately uncomfortable over time. I could change the volume, but I would have to remove the headset entirely every time I wanted to make an adjustment. This offered a greater hearing boost. But I found out just how busy many places I visited were. It seems as if there is always an airplane overhead. And I am always in earshot of traffic. I think I could hear trains half way around the world, too. Ok. I may have exaggerated. A little. Also, wind and rain seemed to be new factors with this setup. But I felt like I was getting closer to a workable solution.
For the last five years or so I have owned a pocket-sized amplifying device called a Pocketalker made by Williams Sound. I still own the old model. There are several newer (and better I suppose) devices now available. I bought my device from amazon.com for about $99. It came with a cheap headset and a little microphone. The headset is one step better than something you’d get on a long flight. And the microphone has no cord. It just plugs directly into the top of the unit. The unit runs on two AAA batteries. Even if you didn’t add anything to this rig it is better, in my opinion, than anything else I had tried.
In using the Pocketalker I tried a couple different placements on the body. The cord for the headset barely reached into my pants pocket. I tried it there first. But as you guessed it, the sound of the mic rubbing against the inside of the pocket was less than desirable. Not to mention that the sound of outside things was slightly muffled. And I wrestled with the cord to my headphones.
I tried clipping onto my belt buckle on my right side. This was better, but I still wrestled a bit with the cord for the headphones. Although I got less material sound than inside the pocket I was surprised how often the mic would brush my shirt where it met the top of my pants.
I often wear nylon fishing shirts when I am out birding. These shirts have two pockets in front. I use my left pocket for my phone. So I tried putting the Pocketalker there. I was able to stuff the excess cords into the pocket without messing things up too badly. This was the best spot. But, the material in my pocket still rubbed against the mic.
The mic was an issue in all three locations for the Pocketalker. After reading a number of reviews, I found that many folks had a good workaround. The Pocketalker has a place to plug in any mic and a place to plug in any headphones (that are wired, of course). So I upgraded my headphones and also purchased a small lavalier mic with a clip and a long enough cord that I could use it anywhere on my body.
I got my lavalier mic made by PowerDeWise on Amazon.com. I just recently bought a replacement. The cord eventually got pinched and shorted out. I got my headphones at Walmart. Simple noise-cancelling headphones by Sony with a cord. Boom. I’ve got my setup.
As a birder, I move around a lot. I found the best place to clip my mic is actually onto my headset, right at the very peak, and pointing in the direction that I am facing. This reduces annoying feedback sounds and is conveniently pointed where I am looking. I like the Pocketalker in my right front shirt pocket. I have less wires to contend with when it is there.
There are two dials on my Pocketalker. On one side I can see the word “off”. To turn the unit on simply turn this dial and it will click on the power. A little red light goes on up on the top of the device. This dial has numbers from 1-10. On a new set of batteries I usually like starting out at about level 3. This is great for conversation as well as just a little more sound than normal for bird songs. When I am walking I sometimes will turn it up to 4 or 5 (if I’m not on leaves or gravel) to listen for more distant sounds. If you turn it too loud you will get feedback.
The dial on the other side is for frequency. This wheel will not change the pitch or frequency. But it will filter out noise. The thinner the line on the dial, the more low frequency is filtered out. This is what I use to magnify higher frequencies of bird songs. Of course, if you use this indoors in a crowded place you’ll want more thickness on the dial. This will filter out the higher frequency sounds and make conversation more pleasant.
This is my go to setup. It serves my purposes well. And with practice with this unit you may find out you can hear more than you thought. Yes, you might feel a little awkward wearing headphones in public. But this, to me, is far less awkward than not being able to hear as well as most everyone else. This will give you more confidence again and make you feel like you are no longer missing out the wonderful experience that we all call “birding”.
I am not an audiologist. I am not a medical professional. I get no money from any of the makers of these products. These are my own personal views and recommendations. If you purchase a setup like mine I hope very much that you will enjoy it as much as I do.