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  • Michelle Varela

Mental Health and Birds

Birdwatching—or even simply listening—can lead to an array of mental-health benefits in humans, including long-lasting stress relief.

Birdwatching spiked in popularity during the pandemic, when people were searching for a safe, free, outdoor hobby. Calls to Mass Audubon exploded in 2020: Newly remote workers wanted to know what was going on outside their window, says Joan Walsh, the Massachusetts conservation organization’s chair of field ornithology and natural history. “There’s lots of drama,” she notes—like a soap opera that plays out in the treetops every day. In addition to mesmerizing avian intrigue, birders of any skill level can tap into robust mental health benefits linked to the hobby. “This connection we have with nature is a lot like being in love,” Walsh says. “I don’t know how else to describe it other than attachment.”

Researchers have long sought to understand the perks of observing birds. A study published in October in Scientific Reports found that seeing or hearing birds improved people’s mental wellbeing for up to eight hours. Nearly 1,300 people used a smartphone app to log their mood several times a day, noting whether they could see or hear birds. People with depression, as well as those without a mental-health condition, experienced significant improvements in wellbeing when they had these encounters. The benefits weren’t explained by other environmental factors, like seeing trees, plants, or water, all of which the study controlled for.

What exactly is so soothing about birds? Andrea Mechelli, a professor of early intervention in mental health at King’s College London and author of the recent birdsong study, theorizes that multiple factors are at play. Nature helps improve concentration by decreasing mental fatigue, he says, and reduces stress by lowering blood pressure and levels of stress-inducing hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. Plus, birds tend to lure people outside, and outdoor activity improves mood through exercise and socialization. “It’s likely that birds make people feel better through all these mechanisms,” he says.

Sitting outside and listening to birds is calming. It is also fun to think about the fact that the birds don’t have to be there, they can leave at any time. From reducing stress to providing real moments of awe, the mental health benefits of bird watching are many. It's something you can do by yourself or as a family activity, and the birding community is welcoming and friendly. The mindful practice of birding is also fun, free and gets you out in nature. So, what's not to love

Why nature and birds may benefit us

Birds help us feel more connected with nature and its health effects. The more connected we are to nature, the more we can benefit from those effects.

One hypothesis suggests that being in nature is good for improving concentration and decreasing the mental fatigue associated with living in stressful urban environments. Natural stimuli, such as birdsong, may allow us to engage in “soft fascination,” which holds our attention but also allows it to replenish.

Nature — and birdsong — also reduce stress. Previous research has found that time spent in green outdoor spaces can lower blood pressure and cortisol levels.

It is not yet understood how birdsong affects our brains, but studies have found brain responses of stress reduction to other forms of nature exposure.

Walking in nature vs. an urban environment decreased self-reported rumination, which is linked to a risk of depression and other mental illnesses, and decreased activity in a part of the brain’s prefrontal cortex associated with rumination. Viewing green scenery engages the posterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with behavioral stress responses and may help regulate the reduction in stress responses from nature exposure.

Going out to see birds also tends to encourage more physical activity, which has its own mental health benefits, and exercising outdoors may, in turn, magnify the health benefits of exercise.

How to get the most out of birds

Be aware.

When we go outside, it is easy to forget that birds are also there singing their hearts out if we don’t pay attention.

Try to be aware. And that’s actually all that you need to do.

Be curious.

What is that bird? Smartphone applications such as Merlin Bird ID and BirdNet, both produced by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, can help identify the bird producing the song and visualize its spectrogram. Apps such as these or eBird also help identify the bird you are seeing from its size, colors and location.

Tools such as BirdCast give live maps of bird migrations in your area — and reveal just how much bird activity you may be missing.

Get into Birding Today

  • Birding is very low-cost. After the initial investment on a pair of binoculars and an ID guide, the only costs are what you spend on travel and entrance fees.

  • You can bird anywhere, anytime. It's a hobby you can do in your back yard or take with you around the world.

  • It's very rewarding to see something new, to be able to name what you see, and to make discoveries. It's also only as much work as you want it to be.

  • Birding can also be a social activity (or not). Beyond being a fun family activity, birding clubs and park rangers offer programs where you can meet other people and look for birds together, pooling knowledge and providing more pairs of eyes and ears. Even informally, birders generally "flock together" and share notes. But if you'd rather keep to yourself, there's plenty of space to do that, too.

Health benefits to Birding

Multiple studies have shown the advantages of bird watching. Here are a few specific ways that bird watching can benefit mental health.

It encourages mindfulness

Bird watching is essentially an act of mindfulness, and we all know some of the proven health benefits that can bring – reduced rumination and lowered blood pressure to name but two.

Practising mindfulness specifically through birdwatching has been scientifically shown to improve mental health. In a 2017 study published in BioScience, scientists from England’s University of Exeter proved that when people witnessed more birds in their daily lives, they experienced reduced prevalence and severity of depression, stress and anxiety. Furthermore, participants didn’t even need to interact with the birds: simply watching them was enough to signify an improvement in mental health.

Additionally, research from the University of Surrey has suggested that actively listening to birdsong contributes to perceived stress recovery and attention restoration.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a garden; you can feel the benefits of bird watching by practising it from a balcony, window, or by going to your local park or woodland. Stay fully mindful and be sure to focus your attention on how the birds look and sound. Examine the details in their plumage and explore the colors. Do you see any patterns? How long is their beak? What do their claws look like? Can you spot the differences between the male and female of the species?

Also, be sure to focus on their calls. Is the sound high- or low-pitched? Are there any patterns in the noises they make? Can you hear a species ‘talking’ to each other? Can you try and imitate their calls? Also, what behaviour do they display? By immersing yourself in the world of the bird your mind should shift away from your worries or other thoughts.

It keeps you physically active

As bird watching is mainly an outdoor activity it often involves walking or hiking around different terrains – woodland, shrub, marsh, clifftop. Indeed, many of the more interesting or hard-to-find species may be lurking in more remote areas away from human activity, meaning more effort is required to reach them.

The benefits of exercise are both physical and mental. Exercise – even walking for a time – leads to an increase in endorphins, one of our so-called happiness hormones, which helps to boost mood and reduce stress.

Nature is healing

To experience the full health benefits of bird watching you need to get out of your home and in to nature. According to studies, natural environments are proven to have two huge benefits when it comes to our emotions. Firstly, being regularly connected to nature leads to a reduction in stress and mood improvement. Scientists have found a correlation between exposure to natural stimuli (such as birds), reduced stress and anger, and improvement in reported well-being and mental health.

Taking the time to focus on our feathered friends during bird watching requires us to shift our attention and awareness, living fully in the present moment (the essence of mindfulness).

The second emotional benefit of being in nature may not be so obvious. It involves developing stronger bonds with others. That's because an improved and more relaxed frame of mind translates to a deeper attitude of compassion, that, in turn, can improve the quality of our social bonds.

Furthermore, spending time out in nature brings forth emotions like joy, awe, serenity, inspiration and gratitude. Consider topping up the mental health benefits of bird watching by combining it with a forest bathing session for a deeply relaxing and rejuvenating experience. Take a break from your screens, switch off your phones, and go birding outside.

It keeps you social

Some people prefer to go bird watching alone. They may find the calm and peace of being alone with nature healing and restorative – but that doesn’t mean they are without company. Indeed, the hobby of birding generates a thriving community of like-minded individuals that like to chat, share stories and tips, and, well, just have a laugh.

In fact, if you head to a renowned birding spot over and again, you're bound to bump into fellow birders who will soon become familiar faces, and perhaps even friends. Indeed, another advantage of bird watching is that it can be a great way to make new friends and the mental health benefits of staying social are well proven: not only does it reduce loneliness and boost well-being, but it can sharpen memory and cognitive skills, too.

It provide moments of awe

Spotting a new bird are a rare bird is inspiring. These moments of awe improve or mental health and give us a sense of accomplishment.

Psychologist Jonah Paquette explains the value of awe in his book Awestruck. In it, he writes: “Awe blurs the line between the self and the world around us, diminishes the ego, and links us to the greater forces that surround us in the world and the larger universe.”

Bird watching provides many opportunities to experience wonder, surprise and amazement. Whether it’s spotting a new bird species, hearing an unusual call, or watching a display or mating ritual, bird watching definitely provides many awe-some moments.

It stimulates and challenges

Yes, bird watching is relaxing but it definitely won't leave you horizontal. In fact, birding keeps you alert and can be challenging, another mental health benefit. Indeed, trying to spot a bird after hearing its call is part of the fun, but it's rarely easy. Challenge yourself to spot a sneaky woodpecker in the branches after hearing its familiar tap-tap-tap sound and you'll likely be scouring the tree for ages before you uncover it.

Trying to spot and identify new species is also a stimulating challenge. Birds will often tease us, flitting in and out of trees to get our attention then zipping off again the moment you've managed to get your binoculars on them. So, it takes time and effort to track them down sometimes.

According to CareUK, the process of looking for birds and identifying the species can even be calming for people living with dementia. Furthermore, repetition – in the form of visiting the same places and seeing the same birds – can also be reassuring to someone living with cognitive impairment.

It'll make you laugh

Remember that old saying that 'laughter is the best medicine'? Well, the studies back it up: in the short-term laughter reduces stress and soothes tensions. In the long-term it can relieve pain, boost overall mood and even improve your immune system.

When you stop to pay attention you will see that birds have fascinating lives that are as funny to observe as they are beautiful. If you pay close attention to their habits and behaviours you will see some hilarious antics when they are feeding, mating or fighting. It can be like watching a soap opera – but in a feathery format!

How to start bird watching

Buy a Field Guide

Start by getting your hands on a field guide. Any book will do as long as it has pictures of each bird and maps of their range. Keep this book in a place where you’ll be able to leisurely flip through it for a couple minutes each day—the bathroom works as well as your nightstand. What are the different kinds of birds? Where do they live, and in what seasons? Don’t worry at this point about how to identify anything, just focus on figuring out what’s out there.

Gear Up

A great thing about birding is how little equipment you need to actually do it. To get started, you really just need something to hold to the eye to make those far-away little birdies a bit bigger. In the beginning, you don’t need to worry about what kind of binoculars you’re using.

Get Out There

The time has come to actually get outside. Your backyard, the local park or a hiking trail. Birds are all around if you take the time to listen and look.

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