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An Idaho Man Teaches Bird Watching To Blind Students

Samantha Wright
Boise State Public Radio
Rob Felix listens intently for the sound of a bird call at Veterans Memorial Park

When a person loses their sight, everyday tasks become a challenge. Walking across the street, reading a book - even hobbies can seem nearly impossible.  But one Idaho man is working to introduce visually impaired individuals to a whole new world of sound. He’s teaching the blind how to identify birds, using only their calls.

Steve Bouffard has his eyes closed and he’s listening intently on the edge of Veterans Memorial Park. He quickly identifies a song sparrow, using only the sound of its call.

He smiles and turns toward a group of people climbing out of cars. Bouffard is an experienced birder and the people are learning the skills they need to navigate blindness.

Bouffard rounds up the group and heads down the path toward the trees.

“We’re gonna head over this way, on a gravel trail. Let’s see what we can hear here first,” he says.

Everyone stops. White canes are held motionless, a guide dog sits down patiently. In the quiet morning, Bouffard immediately picks out several birds by their song.

“Song sparrow, oh, there’s a quail singing behind us. Redwing. That quacking is a female mallard.“

The students are taking classes from the Idaho Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Some are already blind, some are losing their sight. At the Commission’s Assessment and Training Center, they’re learning how to use a walking cane, a computer, a wood saw, even how to cook - all without sight. Today, they’re learning something fun.

Credit Samantha Wright / Boise State Public Radio
Students from the Idaho Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired Assessment and Training Center learn how to identify birds by sound.

Bouffard’s goal today is to teach this group of blind students and teachers how to identify the birds they hear.

“When you talk about birding and visually impaired it doesn’t normally compute, but it really makes sense,” says Bouffard. “When we do bird surveys, most of it’s by sound. We count and identify by sound.”

Bouffard has been birding for at least 55 years. He worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and managed the Minidoka Wildlife Refuge. That’s when he got the idea to take blind people birding.

“Yeah, the first time I did this, I got rid of my phone, my cell phone, shut the computer off and we just went birding with the kids from the School for the Deaf and Blind and it was the best day I had at work, ever.”

At first, the group in Veterans Memorial Park is quiet. As they move deeper into the land, they start to smile and ask questions.

Rob Felix is a student at the Training Center.

“I had my reservations, because I associate birding as being with my vision, but since I don’t have it, it’s been interesting. I’m catching the nuances out here,” Felix says.

Felix lost the sight in his left eye over a year ago, the right eye just recently. When he had his sight, Felix hunted turkey, dove and pheasant. Now he’s looking for another way to enjoy birds.

“I like to joke that since I lost my sight, my eyes are opened. And I pick on my family when I tell them that they’re visually handicapped,” jokes Felix. “This is a whole new experience and I’m enjoying myself.”

After a little time on the trail, Felix already recognizes doves, quail and blackbirds.

Credit Samantha Wright / Boise State Public Radio
Steve Bouffard dials up a bird call on his IPod.

Soon Bouffard halts the group in a clearing. He pulls out an iPod and dials up a bird call.

“That was a redwing blackbird,” he says over the trill of the bird coming from the speaker.

He tells the group anyone can learn how to identify birds.

“You start out easy, you learn the birds of your local area and then with these tapes and smart phones and iPods, you can learn them. The way I learned it mostly, is I hear a sound that I don’t recognize and I go try and find it. And then it sinks in.”

Bouffard turns the group around and leads them back to the parking lot. It has been less than two hours, but it was long enough to convince Rob Felix to become a birder.

“It will be just another way to relax. And get my mind straight. It’s just cool, it was. Not what I expected. I had my doubts. I’ll share this with my family,” says Felix.

Bouffard loves doing this. He watches as people perk up and start to smile as they begin to recognize the bird calls. He calls it the “Wow” factor.

“It’s a lot of fun to share nature. To share something that people who don’t think they can enjoy it, they don’t realize they can enjoy it as much as anybody else.”

Bouffard says he’s writing a grant, to get enough money to plan more birding field trips with the visually impaired.

Find Samantha Wright on Twitter @samwrightradio

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