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.