Searching for birdsong: a nature-lover reflects on his loss of hearing

It was spring in the Highlands and I was following the shore of a large freshwater loch. The bluebell season was well underway, so that the woods were a haze of blue, and the birds were in full throat.

Down by the water’s edge, the common sandpipers had arrived from Africa and had divided up the shoreline into territories. They were teetering, bobbing up and down continually, as so many water birds seem prone to do.

As I approached too close, they flushed, flying off over the water on hooded wings, and called their insistent alarm call. And I was shocked to discover that I could not hear them at all; nothing, not a peep. The sound of the sandpipers had always been to me the sound of summer in the uplands, but no more. How could I have lost such a shrill, penetrating call?

My hearing has always been severely compromised, since a series of chronic ear infections as a young child left me deaf in one ear and hearing impaired in the other. Bereft of stereo, I have never been able to tell the direction that a sound is coming from.

I can generally manage a one-to-one conversation just fine, but a group conversation is often beyond my abilities. I can recognise a bird singing, but a dawn chorus becomes a mass of indivisible sound, all blending and blurring to the point of confusion.

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