Most of us who birdwatch already know the benefits it brings us: birdwatching by definition is a meditative practice that employs all your senses, like listening for sounds and songs, looking for plumage, observing behaviours, recognising habitats, weather patterns, giving consideration to the times of the day, month, year.
Birdwatching by definition is a meditative practice.
Birdwatching allows many of us some “me” time, to be in or near nature, to stop thinking about all the other things that clamour in our brains, as well as just marvel at the sheer beauty of the colours, the diligence of the behaviour, the mystical made real when they fly overhead.
Mental health issues affect one out of four people every year: that’s an alarming statistic. Despite this common – and shared – problem, the subject has a tendency to remain taboo, although the Covid-19 pandemic has thrust this subject into the limelight with people from all walks of life who previously thought themselves “strong enough” suddenly questioning their ability to cope.
Of course, a decline in mental health will depend on varying factors, and ways to combat this are multitude. But studies in the past have already linked the fact that even the simplest action of stepping outside and going for a walk or even spending time looking out of your window can help with your inner turmoil.
The pandemic event has taught us many things, some good and some bad, but at least one amazing thing that has come out of it for so many people is the opportunity to explore their immediate surroundings, and during the times of lockdown with little or no traffic noise all around us, the chance to listen to the wildlife that has carried on regardless.
Read about 7 good reasons for birdwatching.
The surge in interest in birdwatching and feeding in the first year of the pandemic was almost mythical, with stores that sell feeders and food, binoculars, and guide books, reporting a 50% increase in sales for stock that had otherwise lingered on shelves for months. In North America alone, birdwatching became the second most popular pastime just behind gardening, and Cornell Lab’s eBird platform reported their ID app downloads practically doubled in 2020.
Whether we liked it or not, we were suddenly left with little choice but to interact with nature, for many of us from the confines of our homes, and then as restrictions eased, we ventured outside. What better way to distract ourselves from this existential crisis with a relaxing, mind-calming new-found pastime?
The fact that it took a pandemic to reveal just how taboo talking about mental health is should be of grave concern: we shouldn’t need global upheaval to make some time for ourselves, and we certainly should not return to a time when asking if everyone is OK is an intrusion, a thought never to be expressed.
This new world gave many researchers pause for thought and various subjects to look into, given this worldwide change in behaviour and outlook.
Power in diversity
The authors of one report published in December 2020 decided to look at how species diversity affected our well-being. They thought it was a foregone conclusion that there would be a positive correlation between improving mental health and the number of birds seen, but curiously, there was none; that is, just because you lived somewhere with a lot of birds nearby, it didn’t necessarily mean you were going to feel happier.
What actually ended up mattering was the difference in the types of birds to be found. They established that it’s not just that you feel better when birdwatching, you can feel even better when you see different types of birds, when your surroundings are more diverse.
They even managed to equate the responses to the same inner bliss people feel when they receive more money for the same type of work, calculating that being near 14 additional bird species provided as much satisfaction as earning an extra $150 / €130 / £110 a month.
We shouldn’t need global upheaval to make some time for ourselves.
People who reported seeing many of the same kind of birds were less happy than those who saw just a handful of birds but where each one was different. 100 chickadees will always make you smile but one wren, a titmouse, some jays and a couple of finches will make you want to skip and dance, so to speak.
Because we are more likely to see or hear birds than any other animal, they are excellent indicators of biological diversity, especially in urban areas. Different types of birds in a particular area will mean there is greater biodiversity there.
Birds don’t want to waste too much energy looking for food, so somewhere that has insect eaters like swallows and flycatchers, omnivores like thrushes and water birds, seed and grain eaters like finches, sparrows, and pheasants, and the presence of a carnivorous hawk or falcon is going to be jam-packed with all manner of species of plant, invertebrate, reptiles and amphibians, and mammals.
It therefore follows that those areas with a greater range of bird species, ergo greater diversity of everything else, have the best environmental conditions: good air, clean water sources, plenty of natural light, all biological necessities to support this range of life.
We already know that air pollution is one of the biggest environmental threats to human health; no one can live long or happily with filthy water; a lack of sufficient natural light suppresses vitamin and nitric oxide levels, elements that help us regulate our metabolisms, with the latter in particular reducing our desire to overeat.
It simply makes sense that we must conserve nature in order to promote human physical and mental health.
Not enough natural light has been linked to obesity, which then compounds all sorts of organ failure issues. Sunlight stimulates serotonin, AKA the “happy hormone”; no sun, no happy, and down into the doldrums we go, sometimes never to be found.
The authors of the report invited us all to extrapolate their findings as we see fit, but importantly stressed that as diversity has been linked to an uptick in joy that equates to financial success, for centuries seen – erroneously – as the key to happiness, it simply makes sense that we must conserve nature in order to promote human physical and mental health.
Once again, nature only has the potential to benefit if we can get something out of it, but if we’re going to exploit something then this is perhaps the best way to channel our ethos. Urban planning and management of existing green spaces in particular has to be diverse: a city park may look pretty, but manicured grass, tarmac paths and a few shrubs do not a healthy environment make.
If we are to learn anything from this opportunity to explore and understand our mental health crisis, encouraging the creation and supporting the existence of diversity in all forms of life needs to be our lesson 101. The birds prove it.