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Opportunities Unlimited for the Blind

2013 July 17
by Seth Inman and Emma Wing, Marta del Campo

opportunities-unlimited-for-the-blind-banner_mini-grant-eventWe all know that the world has turned upside down.  The climate is mess, and life in the city is accompanied by its usual plethora of challenges.  Nevertheless, wonderful things keep happening just around the corner!  It’s true, and none prove it better than a group of young people in Michigan who are teaching a valuable lesson to all who choose to stay indoors and miss the chance for a walk outside. The group’s participants see very little or not at all, but with the support of the organization Opportunities Unlimited for the Blind, these young people have become excellent at identifying local birds and taking pleasure in nature and the outdoors.

Image from CBS news report, courtesy of  University of Michigan-Dearborn.

Image from CBS news report, courtesy of University of Michigan-Dearborn.

At first glance, it seemed like a huge challenge for these youths to accurately identify the beautiful birds that flutter around their neighborhoods and green areas, near their houses and towns, or simply from their patios and balconies.  However, I quickly discovered that I was completely mistaken.  They have a skill that gives them an enormous advantage when trying to identify birds outside.  With exceptionally sensitive hearing, they have the amazing ability to individuate sounds amidst the everyday commotion of the city.  This provides them with the natural and privileged tool of identifying birds just by hearing them, even when they sing in unison in the forest or when their songs are fused with the incessant noise of the engines and horns of the city.

Opportunities Unlimited for the Blind has an organized group of young people called Birdbrains.  This diverse group is comprised of blind and low-vision youths who have learned to identify and enjoy Michigan’s birds by listening to them.  But how did they learn?  The leader of the group is Donna Posont.  She has done an extraordinary job.  She has obtained support materials, arranged for transportation, and taken care of every detail to assist the Birdbrains with their learning and development through the appreciation of nature and its birds.  Among many other efforts, Donna Posont applied for our 2013 Celebrate Urban Birds mini-grant.  She also requested support material from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds.  It isn’t surprising that they won our mini-grant as well as the support of the personnel of the Library of Natural Sounds and the use of their audio materials.

Youth were able to learn about bird songs and calls thanks to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library, which sent Donna sounds for local urban birds; in addition Celebrate Urban Birds staff created CDs of the focal species songs and calls of the project. Guided by their leader, they first learned to recognize the song and/or call of some common birds in the area, including our project’s focal birds.  Then, full of the desire to apply what they learned, they took to the trails in the University of Michigan’s nature areas where they delighted in identifying the songs of the birds flying around.  It was amazing!  CBS did a story on them, and you can watch the report here. The news group also ran an evening news piece that focused more on the Macaulay side of things, available here. Donna was also interviewed by Michigan Public Radio! You can listen to the radio interview by clicking on the radio logo below. michigan radio

In addition to enjoying the local birds outside and taking great pride in their unique way of identifying them, the group learned much more about birds and their connection with nature.  For example, they learned about the parts of the body of these flying and feathered creatures.  They learned about their connection to plants such as sunflowers, that when left to dry, offer nutritious seeds to the birds, and insects like caterpillars that become a nutrient-rich delicacy for growing chicks.  The group also learned about individual adaptations of certain species, such as the shape of their beaks, which allows them to better utilize their food sources.  The young people also loved discovering why it is important for scientists to band birds with a unique identification number, and how this helps them better understand the bird’s health and migration. All this new information and the pleasure of the outdoors was of course a great source of artistic inspiration for these young people.  So they created beautiful nests from materials gathered outside, such as straw and sticks, in addition to art supplies like glue and pieces of cardboard.  They also made bird feeders and installed them to help local birds throughout the year.

Donna Posont

Donna Posont

In an interview Donna Posont told CBS, “My whole idea is getting them outside enjoying nature, listening to the birds and caring about them, so they care enough to make a difference in the world.” Now, reader, you have no excuse!  Be inspired by this beautiful story, by this admirable group of young people, who has come out to enjoy the breeze, the mysterious odors and various green areas, and most of all, the cheerful chirping of wild birds, which they can now name just by listening to their songs or calls.  I invite you to go for a walk and appreciate small urban birds in your environment.  It’s easy!  And if you’re not quite sure at first what birds you see, look around, venture out, and enjoy the outdoors.  Nature and birds are available to everyone, you just have to explore outside and look up from the mundane to discover them.  Here’s to many wonderful journeys!

To learn more about Opportunities Unlimited for the Blind, or see how you can help out, visit their website!

2 Responses leave one →
  1. David Labowitz permalink
    July 19, 2013

    I am involved with a Urban gardening project in South Philadelphia area.- By the Delaware river and the Sport Stadiums. (Eagles and Phillies)

    Novick Bros. Urban Garden has been operating for the last 3 years and they have many groups of children regularly visit and learn about gardening.

    I need help with creating a list of the birds in that area and which are the regular visitors and the unusual ones that have been spotted recently in that area. Any tie-in to global warming would be great.

    I would appreciate any help you can provide me.
    I would credit your school with any information you can provide us on any handouts we provide to the students from local Philly school’s.

    My e-mail is
    I enjoy your newsletter
    Thanx again!!

    • Seth Inman permalink*
      July 26, 2013

      Hi David,

      Thanks for sharing the information about the gardening project! I think the best bet for figuring out what birds might be regularly seen is to take a look at eBird’s species list for the entire Philadelphia area and check where each sighting took place. If you click here you’ll see a list of bird sightings posted on eBird for Philadelphia in the past five years [to anyone else reading this and interested in learning about their own neighborhood, you can click on ‘change region’ next to ‘Philadelphia’]. Note that in the top right corner of the list you can change the dates around; looking several decades back could give you some very vague hints as to global warming’s effects on species, but there are so many factors involved with shifting bird sightings over time that any claims you make about climate change should be very cautious and quite non-definitive.

      As for information for students, you could sign up to download our kit materials or request physical packets. To learn more about individual species that you see are present in your neighborhood via eBird, I’d recommend the site, which has detailed species accounts. Glad you enjoy our newsletter — good luck with the bird list!

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