A Trip to the Audiologist

Paul Lehman once joked that after he reached a certain age, Grasshopper Sparrows no longer sang, they just yawned.

Birders tend to notice hearing loss before other people.  We’re one of the few groups who care a great deal about hearing faint, high-pitched sounds, like the “tseet” of a distant chickadee that might alert us to the presence of a mixed-species flock of migrants.  Many older birders have written about the experience tracking their hearing loss from the high-pitched species gradually down to the low-pitched ones.

I’ve been concerned about my own ears recently.  I’m not yet 40, but hearing loss runs in my family, and for the past couple years, it’s become obvious that most of my birding friends can detect a chickadee at twice the distance that I can.  For some reason it’s even worse with Blue-gray Gnatcatchers — I can’t hear them at all anymore if they’re more than 75 yards away.

For my whole life, my right ear’s been much worse than my left.  Even as a child I could only answer the phone with my left ear, and sleeping on my left side has always been a natural way of turning down the volume in the bedroom.  But in the past few weeks, I started noticing that my “good” ear was deteriorating considerably.  When I put my headphones on to listen to a recording, the right ear sounded louder.  My fiancee started commenting that I was having more and more trouble hearing what she was saying when we were in public places.

So, today, she finally convinced me to go to the audiologist.

Half a second after looking in my left ear, he declared, “you have a massive buildup of earwax in there.”   With a tiny scoop, he pulled out a disgusting black glob the size and shape of an earplug.  I had no idea it was there, and it didn’t even hurt to remove, but the improvement in my hearing was immediate.  According to the audiologist, a buildup like this can happen to anybody, at any time.  It’s just one of those things.

He proceeded to screen my ears in the usual way.  It turns out that I do have high-pitched hearing loss, but without the homemade earplug, it’s not that bad yet.  Right now I’m only a borderline candidate for a hearing aid.  He said that unless it started really bothering me, I could come back in for another checkup in five years.  Music to my (newly restored) ears.

3 comments to A Trip to the Audiologist

  • Dan Lane

    I hear ya (so to speak). I too have much more acute hearing in my left ear, but in the past year or so have discovered I can no longer hear the high whine of a television (with the volume off) like I used to. I suspect that this is the start of high-frequency hearing loss, right around 40 for me, as well. A good test for folks who might be interested in seeing if they can hear high frequencies may be to listen to the recording on this website:
    http://theoatmeal.com/quizzes/sound/
    I pleased to say that I still can with both ears (but far better with my left).

    One thing that I noticed around the time I noticed that my right ear was poorer at hearing high frequencies was that I was not able to pin-point sounds by ear alone like I could in my teens. Now, I often can’t tell if they are directly in front of me or directly behind! Growing up sucks…

  • Same thing happened to my dad. He thought he was deteriorating fast and it turned out to be a big wad of earwax. He still has mostly lost the high end (he’s 60), and we find a lot more kinglets and creepers when he birds with me as opposed to on his own, but his relatively slow rate of decline has me hopeful for myself.

    I’m only in my low 30s, but I’ve been really conscious of how my hearing is affected by everyday things. I don’t use earbuds, don’t turn the tv and music up loud, etc. I wonder if other younger birders do the same.

  • Dan J. Andrews

    Had a hearing test a year ago (age 51). I know my high-pitched hearing as been declining….the router went from giving a high-pitched whine that I could hear across the room (had to unplug it to sleep), to only hearing it with my head next to it, and then couldn’t hear it at all (that was over a 12-month period when I was in my early 40s). Also used to be able to hear some bats echo-location calls when I was six–my parents couldn’t hear them and said bats don’t make any sound. So I went to get tested, and the bad news is that there is some hearing decline, but the good news is that overall both ears are very good, and the high-frequencies for birds is mostly intact.

    Like Nate, I don’t use earbuds, keep things quiet, wear earplugs at movies, and have done all that since I was a teen*. During the field season I work with a lot of early to mid-20s folks from university, and as of last year, I could still “out-hear” them, not just with birds but also could detect the incoming helicopter long before they could, even when I pointed it out to them. I suspect a large part (or all of it) of that is because they don’t properly protect their hearing.

    I’ll be going for another test in a few weeks to see how things have changed since last year. I suspect the tests will become an annual tradition.

    *I actually started much younger, probably around 8, when the school nurse who tested me said I had amazing hearing and told me to take care of it. I thought I had “super-hearing” and that made me special so I consciously started trying to protect it. Funny how one comment from a stranger so many years ago steered my life this way.