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Fall 2004 Table of Contents
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Listen Up -- Blind Birders Tune in to Nature's Call

By Eric Garza, staff writer for The Monitor in McAllen, Texas
(Reprinted by permission of the author. This article may not be reprinted in other publications or websites without consent from Eric Garza. You may contact him at egarza@themonitor.com)

Abstract: The author reports on the Outta-Sight Song Birder Tournament, a bird watching group composed of contestants who are blind and visually impaired.

Key Words: News & Views, blind, bird watching, recreation

MISSION -- A smile crept across Valerie Mercurio's face early Sunday morning at Bentson State Park in Mission when she heard the birdsong.

Her ears perked up as she strained to identify the small gray bird she could not see.

"Oh, I think that's a beardless-tyrannulet," she said, waiting for confirmation from the five other members of the group.

The others listened intently before nodding in agreement. Her husband, Tom, then pulled out a black felt tip pen and quickly added it to a list of birds they had identified earlier that morning.

The group of six were among the three teams competing in the Outta-Sight Song Birder Tournament, part of this year's Great Texas Birding Classic. But the contestants in the event were unlike any other ever seen in the Rio Grande Valley. Mercurio, along with three other members in the group, is blind.

Even the tour guides participating in the tournament did not have the benefit of their eyesight as they were blindfolded throughout the event.

"It was a little rough at the beginning, "said Roy Rodriguez, one of three tour guides for the participants. "I've been to the park a million times, so I figured I wouldn't have any problem, but the minute we stopped and turned in one direction and turned around again, I had no idea where we were."

The idea of bird watching as a hobby for the Valley's blind population was sparked by Raul Reyes. Reyes, who has been blind since 1989, said he often goes to local adult day care centers to find things to occupy his time.

During one of his visits late last year, one of the caregivers offered Reyes the opportunity to tag along on a birding trip with some of the other people at the center.

"I took the opportunity because I really had nothing else to do," Reyes said. "I'm always looking for something to do for the blind because there's nothing here in the Valley as far as activities go. The blind in the Valley are a large number but there's nothing for us."

He said he enjoyed the trip so much that he quickly contacted other blind people in the area and proposed an informal club for blind bird watchers.

Rodriguez said he was approached by several of Sunday's contestants about six months ago who asked for his help in organizing the event.

"They don't have very many activities…so they wanted something to motivate them and stimulate them mentally," Rodriguez said. "We introduced them to bird watching and told them that 80 percent of bird watching is by ear anyway."

Armed with compact discs, the blind birders started learning the songs of many indigenous birds. Their practice was often no more than wandering into their backyard to try to identify as many bird calls as they could. Their studies were apparent Sunday as most of the group was quick to identify at least a couple of the birds fluttering around them.

"At first I thought I hadn't studied the songs enough," Mercurio said. "I guess I did."

Jesse Garza said he's always enjoyed being outdoors. He said he was pleasantly surprised when he learned of plans to start a blind birders group. "It's something new. I never thought that it could be done," Garza said. "Even in my backyard in my home I can hear the Inca Dove or the woodpeckers." He said he expects that in the near future the hobby will grow by leaps and bounds. He said he hopes the hobby will spread quickly and that future tournaments will feature teams from across the state. "Right now this is something new, but I think the more people read about it…the more people will join," Garza said.

Gladie Cruz, another participant in Sunday's Outta-Sight tournament, said some of the blind birders could eventually become tour guides for other blind people interested in bird listening. "The beginners will eventually get better and be able to train other people," Cruz said. "It'll be the blind leading the blind."

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