I learnt recently about a remarkable South American birder who is recognised as one of the continent’s leading bird experts. He can identify hundreds of species, but he has never seen any of them.
Born in 1986 in Montevideo, Uruguay, Juan Pablo Culasso has been blind since birth. But a gifted sense of hearing has allowed him to memorise more than 3000 different sounds from more than 720 bird species. He is helped by having perfect pitch, which means that he can hear a tone and immediately identify it as F-sharp, B-flat or whatever. Only one in about 10,000 people has this ability.
Culasso’s interest in birds dates from a young age, when his father read to him from a bird guide that was accompanied by audiocassette recordings of bird calls. The youngster found that he could easily memorise these sounds, and this ability inspired an enduring love of birds.
In 2003, as a teenager, Culasso was invited to join an ornithologist on a field visit to record Uruguayan birds such as Tawny-bellied Seedeater (Sporophila hypoxantha) and Rufous-rumped Seedeater (Sporophila hypochroma). This experience led to an obsession with documenting the sounds of nature, and he went on to study bioacoustics in Brazil.
In 2014 Culasso’s facility for recognising birds through their voices alone won him a prize on a National Geographic television programme. In the final test, he had to identify 15 birds chosen at random from recordings of 250 species, and he recognised every one. He spent most of his $45,000 winnings on audio equipment.
After a decade in Brazil, Culasso is now back in Montevideo, working — not surprisingly — as a nature sound recordist. His career has even taken him on a two-month trip to Antarctica, where he recorded the wildlife of the Southern Ocean and the sounds of melting icebergs.
Although blindness may seem a major obstacle for birding, Culasso embraces it. He points out that those who rely mainly on sight have a visual field of only 70 degrees ahead of them, while a lack of vision allows one to concentrate on the sounds received from every direction — left and right, front and back, above and below. When he accompanies sighted birders on field trips he regularly identifies birds by sound long before his companions have managed to recognise them by sight.
Culasso’s success at sightless birding offers a lesson for all birders. It is all too easy to rely mainly on visual identification, but remaining alert to the sounds around you can make a big difference to any birding expedition.