Birds bring joy and beauty to our lives. A recent study shows they can also help reduce depression and anxiety.
Emily Dickinson in one of her most celebrated poems wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul, And sings the tune without the words, And never stops at all.”
Earlier this year researchers at the University of Exeter announced that watching birds in your neighborhood has positive benefits for mental health. I have known that ever since I lived in the African nation of Zimbabwe and an odd-looking bird known as a Hoopoe landed on a flame tree in our yard. This exotic bird is as common in the suburban gardens of Harare as the Red-bellied Woodpeckers that visit my backyard in Connecticut every day now. But its distinctive crown of white and black-tipped feathers made it stand out from all the birds I’d seen before. Enthralled by that encounter, I invested in a field guide for the birds of southern Africa and within weeks had spotted and ID’d sulfur-colored Brimstone Canaries, oriole-like Masked Weavers, tiny Red-billed Firefinches, and stunning Purple-crested Louries.
My passion for birding grew as my wife and I visited some of the top wildlife destinations in southern Africa, and so did my life list, my tally of species observed in the wild. I was fortunate to see many rare and beautiful species at such exotic locales as Victoria Falls and Mana Pools on the Zambezi River. But for ease of access and relaxation, nothing beat Monavale Vlei, a mere mile from our house in Harare. One-hundred thirty-two species have been recorded at the Vlei, and I was able to see a fair number of them on my frequent walks through the wetlands.
Birding has helped my mental health in many ways, but you don’t have to … track down hundreds of rare exotic species … to reap the same benefits that can be had in your own backyard.
Lately, I have taken to birding Selleck’s Pond in Darien, CT, near my current home. Of the 118 species recorded there on ebird.com, I have personally observed 70 of them, including several lifetime firsts. The Exeter study found that it was the number of birds in a given neighborhood, not the species themselves that made a difference in mental health. People living in neighborhoods with more birds and other natural features were less likely to experience depression, anxiety, and stress, than those in bird-free zones.
Prior to reading about this study, I had not given much thought to the general mental health benefits of birdwatching, but I have always been aware of the benefits for me. In an earlier guest blog for Esperanza Hope to Cope, I wrote how certain bad habits and negative thinking can damage mental health. However, it is our positive habits, hobbies, interests, and ways of thought that sustain mental health over the long term. Birding has helped my mental health in many ways, but you don’t have to move to Africa and track down hundreds of rare exotic species in the bush to reap the same benefits that can be had in your own backyard.
7 Great Mental Health Benefits from Watching Birds
(or just about any other outdoor activity)
Outdoor Exercise – Forget treadmills and stationary bikes. I hate the idea of walking for forty-five minutes and getting nowhere. But put me on a woodland trail with a pair of good binoculars and I can go for hours.
Being in the moment – The reason I can go for hours when I’m birding and only minutes on a treadmill is that when I’m outside looking for birds I lose all track of time. I’m not thinking about that Hoopoe back in Harare, or the Rock Ptarmigan I might see some day on my dream trip to Alaska. It’s all about the bird right in front of me, and I must be present in the moment to see or hear it.
Goal-directed activity – I may be in the moment when I’m out in the bush, but back home I’m at the computer, updating my latest sightings on ebird.com, poring through my 16-volume set of the Handbook of the Birds of the World (combined weight of 160 pounds) to study species characteristics and habitat, or planning field trips to go after the next “lifer” on my list. Birding can be an intensely competitive pastime, but even causal birders like me manage multiple lists and must draw on planning and executive function skills to add the next new species.
Utilizing untapped skills – My inward, abstract thinking approach to life has led some people to characterize me as an absent-minded professor type. While I sometimes have my head in the clouds, birding helps me keep my feet on the ground (though my gaze is still directed upwards). When birding, I must pay attention to my environment, using sensory skills like seeing and hearing that I don’t always draw on as much. This helps me be more balanced and attuned to my environment.
Thinking about thinking – Last year I spotted my first American Redstart, a colorful black and orange warbler that looks something like a miniature Baltimore Oriole. For years, I missed this pretty little bird at my favorite local birding spot, but once I noticed one, I started seeing others in abundance. This has to do with my strong preference for left-brained thinking. It’s the right brain that first makes a visual ID of objects in nature, such as birds. My right brain may be slow to pick up the visual and auditory markers of a new species, but once it does, that information is transferred to my left brain, where it is categorized and added to my mental database. Once this happens, I have access to that bird in memory as clearly as the pictures in my field guide. Having an awareness of how your brain works and your own peculiar habits of thinking (known as metacognition), is a great way to monitor and maintain your mental health.
Opportunities for socialization – While birding attracts its share of quiet and contemplative nature-loving folk, it is actually a very sociable hobby. When a rare for the area Prothonatary Warbler was spotted at Selleck’s Pond last month dozens of people from the tristate area descended on this quiet preserve, bearing high-end binoculars and giant camera lenses that made me wonder if E.T. had landed there. Let’s say you’re a shy, introverted type who dreads making small talk at large, crowded social functions. Find yourself running into other shy, introverted strangers with binoculars around their necks in the middle of the woods and you suddenly have a thousand things to talk about: ‘No, I haven’t seen the “Protho” yet, but I spotted a White-eyed Vireo by the power line cut.’
Self-esteem – It feels great to add another bird to my world birding list, now at 557 lifetime species. But the thrill is no greater than the discovery of that first Hoopoe back in Harare. Each new bird feels like an accomplishment and is a reason to feel good about life on this planet.
I won’t go so far as to say that watching birds has cured me of all my woes. But it does help keep anxiety and depression at bay, and helps me stay in balance. Watching birds may not be the activity for you, but there are many other pastimes, such as gardening, photography, fishing, cycling, and canoeing, with similar benefits for mental health. The most important consideration is that it gives you joy and that it challenges you to use new skills and maintain a healthy balance in your life.
via Esperanza – Hope To Cope
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