People have known for millennia that just being in nature can bring a sense of calm, and now science is backing up that innate knowledge with data. The benefits turn out to go much deeper than just bringing a little peace to an afternoon.
The great polymath Robert M. Pyle theorised in 1978 that any decline in our interaction with nature would lead to something he coined an “extinction of experience”, with the outcome being that there will be negative implications for our health and well-being: positive emotions, attitudes, and behaviour with respect to the environment would decline, starting a vicious cycle of disinterest toward nature, with an ultimate disconnection. The importance of reconnecting people with nature now, as well as focusing research and public policy on increasing awareness of nature, cannot be understated.
In an upcoming post, we’ll talk about the issues facing birds of all species, and highlight the dangers that may lay in store for those that we aren’t greatly worried about right now, due to them being classified as “Least Concern” on the IUCN’s species list. Despite being abundant, common species are still at risk due to habitat loss that has already happened, and this needs to be addressed, if only out of pure selfishness as to how we can benefit from their presence. Common species are the ones that we most associate with in our everyday lives. Because they are more familiar to us, these birds provide valuable opportunities for us to connect with nature. Just seeing a plump robin land on a feeder, or a stunning kingfisher darting over a weir can mean the difference in mood for all of us.
There is rarely a better time than winter and the first few weeks of spring to do some top-notch birdwatching.
As the winter months gather around us, remembering that the colder seasons hold a greater diversity of birdlife can be a soothing tonic, particularly with this year’s season perhaps being poignant for many of us who are struggling to find ways to enjoy our surroundings. Migration will have, for the most part, occurred, and all of those birds relocating to different parts of the world should either now have arrived, or be due in a couple of weeks, and are settling into their routines. There is rarely a better time than winter and spring to do some top-notch birdwatching.
As well as helping us feel better inside, bringing some order to our thoughts and enabling us to set aside some worries, birdwatching has been shown to increase cognitive functioning; that is, it helps you boost your memory and your concentration skills. In the UK, the leading health and social care organisation for older people CareUK encourages those living with dementia to take part in birdwatching and bird counts, involving family where possible. Listening to birdsong also helps people recall memories from their younger years. Research in this area has shown that just spending some time watching and listening to the birds together for as little as ten minutes a day significantly reduces the stress levels of everyone in these situations.
Birds relocating to different parts of the world should now have arrived.
Birdwatching helps us focus our attention simply by its insistence on being a thoroughly passive activity; aside from putting out some food to lure the birds to our fields of vision, there is little we can do to influence the world of birds so we must simply sit and watch, and slow down. Stress responses from living in a predominantly urban and technology-filled world triggers mental and physical fatigue. This is considered to be a leading cause of depression. Blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones fall when birdwatching.
Again, in the UK, the RSPB teamed up with the National Health Service and piloted a scheme in Shetland, Scotland, a simply stunning part of the world with no shortage of birding encounters. Since 2018, doctors there now prescribe nature as part of their treatment for people experiencing ill-health. In America, there are currently 87 similar schemes across 32 states; doctors identify a patient’s nearest green space and they then work together to fill out the prescription, determining timelines and activities, with birdwatching among them.
Birdwatching has also been deemed an activity that helps us be a “better” person in terms of brain development from an early age. A study in Barcelona found that children who were growing up near or in a green environment were better able to focus on their work, absorbed more information and showed improved memory skills. Whilst data is still limited on the specific influence birdwatching has on children, schools that incorporate “forest days” which include birdwatching activities find that stress levels fall for children who consider themselves “not very good at school” when they are outdoors. Those children showed clear enthusiasm in engaging with their peers, and completed nature-based tasks with confident ease which then translated back into the classroom later that day. Park visits outside of school for these families became more frequent, with parental stress decreasing as their children’s resilience and interest in the world around them increased. Many bird and wildlife sanctuaries in Europe and the United States now run pre-school programmes called forest kindergartens, and you can find out more about those here.
Blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones fall when birdwatching.
Aside from the physical benefits of birdwatching (even a trip to the bird feeder to restock takes physical activity), the mounting evidence across the world that birdwatching and its association with the great outdoors and nature all points to something we would be fools to deny ourselves – feeling good. In other posts, we’ll discuss the benefits of community birdwatching and birding tourism, but for now, it’s time to turn off your device and stop reading this, and go watch some birds.