backyard birding

Assisting Visually Impaired Birders

A bird feeder can be a wonderful scene of activity and color! Photo by Monica Hall

A bird feeder can be a wonderful scene of activity and color! Photo by Monica Hall

It was back in October when my friend Dorothy called me about seeing birds in her backyard. Or rather, not seeing them. She had trouble seeing the birds due to aging eyes and Macular Degeneration, a frustrating and usually debilitating visual impairment that millions of elderly experience. Dorothy is in her mid-90’s and, incredibly, still living independently (with assistance from her aides and the Wisconsin Council for the Blind and Visually Impaired). As it happens, Dorothy is also Madison Audubon’s longest-standing member and an avid bird-watcher… that is, until her eye-sight started to fail.

The effects of macular degeneration on vision. From macular.org

The effects of macular degeneration on vision. From macular.org

A few days after Dorothy called, I stopped over to bring her bird seed and rearrange some feeders for better viewing. The Council, which specializes in empowering those with visual impairments to be as independent and fulfilled as possible, set her up with a camera/monitor system to help her get a closer view of the birds at her feeders. She showed me her bird-watching set-up by her large picture window looking out into her backyard. The camera brought in a close-up image of her feeders onto a 24” monitor and she could see her birds again. She could swivel the camera and see all three feeders just fine.

It seemed to fit her needs perfectly. However, it came with a steep price tag. And although to Dorothy, it was worth that much and more to see her birds again, I wondered if I could do the same thing for her for a more modest cost. After all, if it worked, we wanted this to be something that many people in many economic situations could replicate.

The quest began. I stopped at a video store and talked to a salesperson and even showed him the set-up she had. Naturally he led me over to the $1000 video cameras and showed me the features and cables required. It was way more than what I felt was needed and I asked him to show me much less expensive cameras. There were several under $500 that could do the trick. All I needed now was a small flat screen TV for her to see the enlarged image.

With this new information I went back to Dorothy’s house and told her I could get her set up for under $400 for a video camera and 24” TV. She has a large flat screen TV that would work but it was too big for the area. We discussed options. She finally said she would trust my judgement and go ahead and buy what was needed even if it meant spending $500.

Dorothy's enhanced birdwatching station at work! Photo by Pat Ready

Dorothy's enhanced birdwatching station at work! Photo by Pat Ready

So, I set up a video camera to a new flat screen TV. She can zoom in if she wants. She had a tripod for the camera and she can pan left or right to see all her back-yard feeders. The camera cost $180 and flat screen TV was $120. She loves it!

After we got her new bird’s-eye-view set up, The Council also added a large magnifying screen in front of the TV, so she can see the birds even better!

Birding is a wonderful hobby that brings peace, thrills, wonder, and purpose. Helping those with visual impairments continue to enjoy birdwatching takes a little creativity and usually some teamwork, but hopefully this article helps you with a few ideas for getting started!

Written by Pat Ready, Madison Audubon member and volunteer