Whether you’re a total novice or an ornithological expert, the practice of birdwatching offers powerful health benefits and is a fantastically accessible way to enjoy mindfulness, says Jenny Oldaker.
This morning I woke up to a pounding heart and racing thoughts. Annoyingly, this is a fairly familiar start to my day, especially at times when the demands of work and life are escalating and fuelling my stress levels. However, I now have a secret weapon with which to fight these panicked wake-ups. And that secret is sparrows.
After just a few short minutes sitting in my kitchen with a coffee, watching these little brown birds fluttering among the shrubs and pecking at crumbs on the lawn, my anxiety levels have quickly receded. It’s not just sparrows, either – sleek, dramatic crows, plump wood pigeons and fluffy balls of blue tit all have a similarly calming effect.
As my focus switches from my day-to-day anxieties to observing their activity, I am anchored in the moment, and in watching these fluttering antics I feel connected to something beyond myself and my worries.
An antidote to modern life
The stress-relieving power of watching birds is by no means unique to my experiences; an increasing body of scientific evidence proves there is a link between good mental health and feeling connected to the natural world. Under an innovative project designed by RSPB Scotland, GPs have even started offering ‘nature prescriptions’ alongside more traditional treatments for some patients. The scheme was so successful when it piloted in Shetland in 2017 that it has now been adopted by surgeries in Edinburgh to see how it works for patients in an urban environment.
“I think it’s the simplicity of the project that makes it so appealing,” says Elaine Bradley, RSPB Scotland’s Project Development Executive for Nature Prescriptions. “We use our knowledge of nature to identify local activities and ideas which support GPs in prescribing nature, where appropriate, as part of a patient’s treatment plan. Individuals benefit because connecting with nature can improve physical and mental wellbeing, and nature benefits because connecting with nature often inspires people to want to protect it.”
A 2017 study by the University of Exeter makes an even more specific case for the benefits of birdwatching. It claims that the action of observing birds itself is linked to improved mental health, with lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress recorded in people living in neighbourhoods with a greater number of birds. This hypothesis is borne out by Joe Harkness in his book Bird Therapy, an inspiring account of the role that birdwatching played in his recovery from a mental breakdown in 2013.
One of the factors that makes birdwatching so attractive as a beneficial mindful practice is that absolutely anyone can try it, and it can be undertaken almost anywhere. As my experiences demonstrate, you don’t even need to leave the house, as birds can be seen in even the smallest garden or yard, or observed and enjoyed from any apartment window. But if you can get outdoors to enjoy some ornithological activity, that’s even better – observing birds in parks, reserves or woodlands offers the additional benefits of fresh air and exercise while you watch.
No skill required!
Don’t worry if you can’t tell one species from another, either. That’s not the objective of mindful birdwatching, and studies indicate that it’s the action of interacting with birds – rather than being able to spot specific birds – that provides a sense of wellbeing.
Of course, using binoculars and learning to identify birds can be really rewarding in itself (and offers a fascinating learning curve) but simply enjoying the birds you see and noticing the details of their plumage and observing their behaviour, or closing your eyes to get lost in melodious waves of birdsong, is enough to deliver a rush of peace and contentment. In a nutshell, the meditative practice of observing birdlife offers palpable benefits whether your approach to the activity is serious or casual.
As autumn draws in in the UK, birdwatching offers a superb excuse to get outside into the crisp chill of the golden season. From September, look out for migrating birds – summer visitors like swallows start to leave the UK for warmer climes, while countless overwintering birds like ducks, geese and waders begin to arrive. Wetland habitats are perfect for immersing yourself in the sounds and spectacle of these characterful flocks, while in the garden finches and other small birds will appreciate any food you put out (the warm glow of seeing their hungry little beaks enjoying this provision offers an additional buzz of delight). Autumn is also a time for spectacles like swirling starling murmurations, and if you get a buzz from seeing rarities, some exotic species occasionally pop by, blown off course from their own long-distance migrations.
After the past 18 months of restrictions, birds are a perfect representation of the nurturing power of nature, and watching them is a wonderfully accessible outlet for anxiety. “The pervasive health challenges associated with the pandemic mean that there’s never been a better time to connect people with nature to support health and wellbeing,” agrees Elaine. When we tap into the lives of birds – whether as expert birders or total beginners – we can achieve mindfulness, perspective and peace. And it can all start from your kitchen window…
Resources to begin your birdwatching journey
- ROYAL SOCIETY FOR THE PROTECTION OF BIRDS RSPB: The UK’s largest nature conservation charity has reserves across the UK and a website full of useful info, from ID guides to birdwatching advice.
- BRITISH TRUST FOR ORNITHOLOGY (BTO): BTO is an independent research charity, increasing knowledge of birds through scientific study. It has a website full of fascinating studies and information.
- BIRDNET (APP): The BirdNET app identifies bird sounds and song – really useful if you’re out and about and want to know what you’re listening to!
- STOP TO WATCH (PODCAST): A BTO-produced podcast presented by actor Martin Shaw, offering a meditation to encourage listeners to embrace mindful birdwatching.
- BIRD THERAPY BY JOE HARKNESS: A deeply personal and inspiring description of the power of birds in improving mental health. Available from most high-street and online booksellers.
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