Teaching your mind to fly: The psychological benefits of birdwatching

Teaching your mind to fly: The psychological benefits of birdwatching

By Christopher W. Leahy

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It is now a matter of common knowledge—bolstered by significant and growing scientific documentation—that immersion in the natural world can provide measurable benefits to human physical and mental health. As early as the 1980’s the government of Japan included in its national health plan a practice called “forest bathing” (shinrin-yoku). The practice involves more than just a stroll through the park; rather it is a form of meditation in which one spends time under a forest canopy focusing on all aspects of the natural experience—sights, sounds, smells—to the exclusion of self-centered thoughts. Regular woodland “baths” of this kind have reliably reduced stress and anxiety, relieved depression, and even reduced blood pressure, heart rates, and stress-related hormone levels.

In 1984, the eminent naturalist and biologist E.O. Wilson published Biophilia, referring to the love of nature and proposing that not only do people have a tendency to affiliate with other life forms and their environments, but that this affinity likely has a genetic basis. Like me, Professor Wilson was allowed to be a “wild child.” This did not mean keeping bad company or committing acts of vandalism, but rather having our enlightened parents’ permission to spend our free hours exploring our local neighborhoods, which to our good fortune contained a variety of habitats, packed with irresistible organisms in seemingly infinite variety. In my case at least, these often demanded not only to be observed, but also collected, delivered (in triumph!) to my home for the admiration of my more than tolerant parents, and—with the help of my knowledgeable father—identified. While I have retained my interest in virtually all aspects of the natural world, I owe my general sense of well-being and a most satisfying 45-year career with the Massachusetts Audubon Society to a passionate obsession with BIRDS.

By sharing the above snippet of autobiography, I in no way mean to undervalue the salutary effects of meditating and opening all senses under the beneficent shade of a forest canopy. And I freely admit my obvious bias when I suggest that birds and birdwatching might provide an even better Rx for stress/anxiety/depression. There has recently been a flurry of research substantiating the claim that birdwatching can, (if you’ll excuse the technical jargon) make you happy. Here are some possible reasons why.

  • Just the presence of wild birds has been shown to measurably improve people’s spirits and health regardless of where they are encountered. Thus, offering some seed or suet in a suburban garden or on a city windowsill can provide an effective connection with nature.
  • A lot of people don’t know what to do when visiting a natural area, thus increasing rather than reducing anxiety. Once introduced to the possibility of looking for and identifying different bird species, this problem is solved. And once the avian objective is identified, the rest of nature tends to enter the picture.
  • Birds are inherently captivating aesthetically, exhibiting near infinite colors, forms and plumage variations.
  • Birds are ubiquitous on the planet and engage in an astonishing range of behaviors. Swimming below the ice in Antarctica. Nesting by the millions on Arctic tundra. Dancing in the trees in the rain forests of Papua New Guinea. Gathering at oases in the Gobi Desert. Soaring over the highest peaks of the Andes and migrating above Mt. Everest. Chasing fish at over 1750 feet in the ocean depths. Sharing a meal with a pride of lions. Nesting on skyscrapers in New York City.
  • Bird distribution is by no means limited to geography. If the weather keeps you inside, be aware that birds are also abundant in our art, in our poetry, in our music, in our myths and movies and medicine, in our food and fashions and fantasies. And in the fossil record millions of years before there were any human bones to ponder.
  • Birding as Sport: how many species can you find in your yard? In your state? In your favorite open space? In your dreams?
  • Activism: supporting bird conservation by helping with a census or managing a habitat.
  • There are more than 10,000 species of birds in the world, and every region has special (endemic) birds that occur nowhere else, if you have the time and the means, birds can provide a great incentive to travel and explore other cultures while adding to your life list.
  • Birders are a community, and while birding in solitude can be a great form of meditation, it can also be emotionally rewarding to share a (non-stressful) relationship with those who share your passion.

Given the above, it is perhaps not surprising that birding has become one of the most popular outdoor activities in the U.S. (edged out barely by gardening), or that health clinics are now partnering with birding education programs at conservation organizations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in the UK to provide a unique and effective form of psychological support.

I have just published with Princeton University Press a new book on birds and birding, Birdpedia: A Brief Compendium of Avian Lore. This modest volume while still composed of entries in alphabetical order, makes no claim to be “encyclopedic.” It might be described as a “teaser”, aiming ideally for the kind of curious reader, who has noticed that a large and growing percentage of the world’s population has become fascinated with birdwatching, or to use the sportier term, “birding.” If people now spend billions of dollars annually on optical equipment, identification guides, bird feeding paraphernalia, and guided tours to Mongolia in search of exotic species, it might be worth looking into this little book to find out why so many, otherwise sane people are staring into the trees or scanning smelly mudflats these days.

In Birdpedia, you will find no exhaustive accounts of bird taxonomy or the avian digestive system or even descriptions of bird families. But there are general essays on Birdwatching and Identification that attempt to give the uninitiated a sense of what the fuss (and fun!) is all about; summaries of some of the more fascinating aspects of birdlife such as migration, brood parasitism, and vocal mimicry; as well as briefer, more whimsical entries calculated to provoke a smile or stretch credulity. The reader will find a definition of “crepuscular” for example (not to mention “goatsucker”); discover the identity of ur-birder Alexander Wilson (not to mention Eleanora of Arborea); and have access to recipes for sea ducks.

It can be said that a love of birds manifests itself in four fundamental ways: (1) as pure pleasure—the first oriole of the spring; the cry of a curlew over the marsh; (2) as an ever-widening curiosity that leads to new found knowledge, perhaps even to wisdom; (3) as a concern for the fate of the world’s birdlife—now gravely threatened by human recklessness—and a willingness to take action, however modest to conserve it; and (4) as a source of personal joy, solace, and relief from the all too prevalent stresses of modern life. My fondest hope for this modest volume of bird lore is that it might provide inspiration for all four.

Christopher W. Leahy holds the Gerard A. Bertrand Chair of Natural History and Field Ornithology (Emeritus) at the Massachusetts Audubon Society. His books include Birds of Mongolia and The Birdwatcher’s Companion to North American Birdlife (both Princeton).