Listening With Deer Ears


Listen!  Can you hear it?

The rustle of the leaves as the wind blows through the trees.

The tap-tap-tapping of the Pileated Woodpecker's beak on the hollow of a snag. 

The splash of the rain as it falls upon ferns and onto the thirsty ground.  

The melodic explosion of the male Pacific Wren's song.  

The "PEW!" of the Douglas Squirrel letting out a boisterous alarm.  

Loud sounds, soft sounds, and all sounds in between.  With so much going on, how can you possibly take it all in??  

Today I'm feeling called to share about a core routine of nature awareness that we like to practice at forest school. It's called listening with Deer Ears.

As with all nature awareness skills, we look to the creatures of the forest for their wisdom.  

When it comes to sharpening our sense of hearing, deer are potent teachers.   Deer have an incredible sense of hearing, which allows them to detect the faintest of sounds.  This adaptation is crucial for the survival of this prey species.  

Have you ever observed a deer as it detects a sound?   It instantly turns its head and points its big muscular ears like satellite dishes in the direction of the noise. It's believed that a deer's sense of hearing is so fine-tuned that it can determine precisely how far away a sound is when made.

Here's how you can tap into your own "Deer Ears":  First, cup your hands behind your ears.  Notice how the sounds in front of you amplify.  Next, cup your hands in the opposite direction so that they're over your ears.  Notice how you can now hear things behind you a bit better.  Now, listen real carefully to the sounds all around you.  What do you hear closest to you?  Furthest from you?  To your left and right, in front and behind you? What's the loudest sound that you hear? What's the quietest sound?  The softest sound?  And the hardest one?  

Here's a focused, "scout" type of game that we like to play at forest school called Fire Keeper, which helps us to sharpen our Deer Ears.  We learned this game from our friends at Wilderness Awareness School. It's best to play this game with at least four participants, ages six and older.  It can be an enjoyable game to play with a mix of kids and adults!  So, round up your spouse and kiddos and get ready for some exhilarating sneaky fun!

Fire Keeper 

Supplies:  A blindfold, a keychain with jangly keys (or something else that is noisy to "steal," such as a bell), materials such as rope or bandanas to use for delineating the edge of a large circle.

Setup: Find a quiet location in the woods, away from a lot of human activity.  In an open, flat space, create a large circle using a rope, bandanas, backpacks, or shoes as a boundary.  (We love playing this game with our shoes off because it makes it easier to be quiet!)  

This game is a sneaking game, so choose your terrain based on the ability level of the group.  For example, a circle of mostly wet grass is much easier for sneaking on than one full of dry, crackly branches and leaves.

Choose a "Fire Keeper."  Preferably this is someone who you can trust to not cheat by peaking through their blindfold.  The Fire Keeper sits in the middle of the circle, blindfolded, with the keys (aka the "fire") on the ground within arm's reach in front of them.  All other participants, aka "sneakers," remain at the edge of the circle.

Objective:  For the sneakers, the goal is to sneak in and steal the keys/fire without getting pointed out by the Fire Keeper.  

For the Fire Keeper, the goal is to prevent the sneakers from sneaking in and stealing the fire.

Gameplay:  The game facilitator (most likely this is you or another adult) points at the sneakers waiting quietly on the outside of the circle boundary, indicating that it's their turn to "sneak." It's best to have no more than three people sneaking at the same time.  

The sneakers attempt to "steal" the keys and bring them out of the boundary without getting pointed at by the Fire Keeper.  Meanwhile, the Fire Keeper is listening carefully with their Deer Ears for any noises made by the sneakers.  The Fire Keeper must point directly to the source of the sound whenever they hear someone sneaking in on them. It's essential that the Fire Keeper is direct and avoids swinging their pointing arm around randomly.  

Whoever successfully steals the keys and gets them back to the boundary without being pointed at has the opportunity to be the next Fire Keeper.

Variations:  For advanced sneakers, have more than one fire in the middle to steal.  

Another option is to wrap a bell around an advanced sneaker's ankle, so they have to be extra sneaky not to be detected. 

In the summer, use a squirt gun in place of the pointer finger!  

For the very advanced sneaker, add a web of "laser beams" (string or rope) that cannot be touched.

I hope that you and your family enjoy this exhilarating and sneaky way to sharpen your Deer Ears and, in turn, connect more deeply with the sounds of the natural world!

Now I'd love to hear from you. What sounds have you been noticing in your Deer Ears lately?