Therapy With Birds: Meet Holly Merker

Therapy With Birds: Meet Holly Merker

Photo credit: Richard Crossley, Crossley Books

In today’s 'BIRDS OF A FEATHER' interview we talk to educator, bird guide, therapist and all-round superb human, Holly Merker. Holly is also an author of Ornitherapy, a book that has been helping transform the lives of many with its interactive approach to practicing mindfulness through the wonder of birds.

The hibernal days of early 2002 were in retreat and migrants would soon ride the winds along flyways to head north again. As Spring slowly advanced, Holly Merker was adjusting to a somewhat restricted life after an accident while sledding left her with two fractured vertebrae and she had to wear a brace from the neck down. Despite this painful setback, she eagerly awaited the birds visiting her feeders.

Photo credit Kari Oeltjen

At 32, Holly considered herself healthy, following a vegetarian diet, rarely unwell. So, when the breast cancer diagnosis came in the first week of March, her world capsized.

“That was a really difficult time. When you get a diagnosis at such a young age, thinking I did everything correctly so far, and I was hardly ever sick; how could this happen? Coupled with the back injury, overwhelming was not even close to describing what was going on. And we had a lot going on: my husband was a Navy reservist deployed to Saudi Arabia because it was shortly after 9/11, also my kids were suffering from anxiety. But I was lucky because the birds were there for me. I started relying on birds in a way I hadn't really done in the past.

Holly Merker

At the time, I didn’t know all of this science that we now have access to, I was just gravitating towards them. One day, I was going through chemo and I was so despondent, physically and mentally unwell. I remember lying in bed and I could see a window – thank goodness: always make sure you can see a window if you're ill, studies show it promotes recovery so much faster – but on this day, I got lucky because a great blue heron landed in a tree just outside, and all of a sudden my mind went off my problems. Before, I was: I want to die; then: oh my gosh, there's a great blue heron! We can have those moments, even on good days, which bring us joy. And when we share that with others we're giving them a gift as well.”

Great Blue Heron in Florida

All in the mind

Fast forward to 2023 – we meet online on a crisp March morning just two days shy of the 21st anniversary of her diagnosis, and a mercifully cancer-free Holly is expertly helping me understand that life is not to be worried away, and most importantly the tools we can use to de-stress and nurture our physical and mental health are right outside our windows. All we have to do, is watch.

In 2021, Holly co-authored Ornitherapy with birder, photographer and field guide author Richard Crossley and his daughter Sophie. Defined as mindful birding, ornitherapy is a ground-breaking approach to connecting with birds and nature whilst paying no heed to all the other thoughts clamoring in our heads.

Holly's book on Ornitherapy. Credit: Crossley Books

The word ornitherapy, Holly explains, was actually first used by Dr. A.F. Cox in a 1979 piece published in the British Journal of Medicine. Dr. Cox observed that when his patients watched birds, the effect was akin to being administered a tranquilizer; just far safer and cheaper.

The term ‘mindful’ has its roots in Buddhism, a translation of the words sati and vipassana, from the ancient Indian language, Pali. Sati roughly means "awareness;” vipassana refers to insight via meditation. It is this latter aspect that accounts largely for western society’s somewhat self-destructive dismissal of the practice; to many, meditation feels wholly unattainable in our chaotic lives, a vestige of fantasy from a distant, other world now lost to history. But Holly cites another example of a life in turmoil to demonstrate how we overcomplicate this.

Holly's friends Bird Buddy and a bluebird visitor

“I have a friend who's going through a really rough time. Her husband has Alzheimer's disease and is now in a nursing home. So she’s been battling depression and questioning ‘where's the joy in my life?’ Even though she wouldn’t call herself a birder, she’s always had feeders, and she ordered a Bird Buddy. Soon, I started to get text messages from her with pictures saying, Look who's visiting me today! It has brought her so much joy in a different way that a regular bird feeder could. It takes the edge off her loneliness when she gets a message that a house finch or a bluebird has visited, and that’s just so in line with what I'm talking about.”

Birds bring us ‘present moment thinking’ – when we're watching a bird, we're in the moment, the essence of mindfulness, whether we know it or not.

“Most people don't even realize that’s what’s happening. A lot of us think, uh, meditation? I can't meditate! My mind is so busy, I'm so distracted. But that's one of the many unrealized gifts that birds provide. Especially when it's visiting our feeder: because it's paying us a visit, we're having a reciprocal relationship with the bird, so they become a conduit into mindfulness practice, as we’re not thinking about what's worrying us or what's going to happen in the future.”

Mindful birding event. Photo credit: Blake Goll

Whilst Holly is explaining this, I can feel my own brain whirring; one part is checking I have all my questions in mind, whilst listening for cues for others; another part is making sure I’m quiet and don’t interrupt; but I also think about when I watch birds. A self-described impatient birder, I can give up after a few minutes if nothing’s immediately there, but when I do see a bird, I’m caught up in the magic just like the rest of us. But then I ruin it – I notice what I’m doing and then all the other thoughts of what I “should” be doing come flooding over the quiet. I confess my own impatience.

Holly Merker. Photo credit: David Brown

“It’s about being gentle with yourself,” Holly offers, “saying, ‘this is part of my self-care: it's good for me, it's beneficial, and it's also productive’. I think we probably don't think that because watching birds isn't like a ‘tasking’ activity. We haven't recognized it this way, but actually when we turn our attention to birds, it is productive because we're giving that part of our analytic mind a break by shifting our attention, potentially disrupting negative thinking patterns or interrupting anxiety. But what you said is, you feel like you should be doing something else, something is always pulling you away.

We need to reframe how we look at the practice of watching birds and give ourselves permission to recognize that this is beneficial. You may not think it's as productive as making a call or writing, or whatever, but actually, you're going to be in a better frame of mind when you go to do those tasks. I think all corporate centers around the world should have green spaces specifically with bird feeders for people to take a time-out to just go and watch, observe. The return of the investment on time of employees taking a 20-minute break like that is going to be huge because studies show that this increases productivity and creativity”.

Brookgreen Gardens Ornitherapy with Holly. Photo credit: Barbara Norris

Bird beginnings

As she spoke, something in my head went *bink* as it slotted into place; and I realized Holly had just altered a mindset I’ve been battling with for decades. It will still require practice, but for now, simply calling birdwatching productive is something I can get on board with, and I can suddenly justify the time. I ask how she became this sorcerer who can change the perspective of a 50-year-old woman in ten seconds, where did Holly as Mindful Bird Therapist begin?

“I’ve loved nature as far back as I can remember, and birds have always captivated my attention. My mom always had feeders which allowed that special connection when birds are that close, and she bought me a field guide that I would flip through and see who I recognized. But I didn't understand that other people liked birds until I was in college when I met others who ‘admitted’ the same thing.

Flamingo. Courtesy of pxfuel

I grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland, and one of my first volunteer jobs was as a junior zookeeper at what was then called the Baltimore Zoo. This was a fantastic experience for me as a teenager. One of my tasks was to make all the food for the flamingos in the wading bird exhibit, so I got to understand why flamingos are pink! It taught me a lot about environmental education and how to teach others about the natural world.

My parents are both artists, my father professionally, so while I knew I loved nature and birds, I also had a strong passion for the arts, so educationally my background was in art therapy. I have always had a passion for helping others so using art as a therapeutic vehicle towards wellness for people made sense for me. But as my obsession with birds and birding got deeper and became, really, every fiber of my being, I shifted careers to become more of a professional environmental educator teaching schoolchildren, also adults with bird guiding.

Photo credit: Barbara Norris

It was then I noticed that same transformation when people were outdoors connecting to nature, as I did when using art therapy. I realized: this is really therapeutic. But there was no ‘nature therapy,’ how could I go back to school for this? Then I started thinking about my own life, and how I have used birds therapeutically, and I started having a lot of ‘aha’ moments. Those connections continued to magnify how birdwatching is a healer, a companion for loneliness during difficult times. I realized this was my calling.

With cancer, one of the most challenging obstacles to get through is when you lose all of your hair with the chemotherapy. You know how, when you're young, how I was going to pull this look off, ‘none of my friends are bald.’ But what made it even more fraught with anxiety for me was that my son, who was seven at the time and already suffering from anxiety disorder, told me that he was really fearful of his friends seeing me bald, none of the other mommies were bald, and it would look like I was sick. And when another person that you love expresses that they're going to suffer because of something that's out of your control, it's hard.

Tufted Titmouse

So when my hair fell out – and for me it fell out all at once in one night, it just started coming out in clumps – I didn't know what to do with it. Do you throw that hair in the trash can? That felt bizarre because this is a significant loss, but keeping it seemed weird too. I didn't want to think about it, so I set it aside for a while. But then about a week later, I remember I had read that if you put pet hair outside in spring during the nesting season, maybe a bird might take it and use it for their nest.

So I took my hair and put it into a suet cage and hung it on the feeder right outside my kitchen window. I had multiple surgeries because of the breast cancer, I was going through a very aggressive type of chemotherapy, and I was in that back brace; but I could still get to that window. One day I got really lucky. As I was looking out, I saw a tufted titmouse jumping around all over the suet cage, looking at my hair from every angle it could, and then it started tugging at it. All of a sudden it pulled some out and flew away with it. All my worries, my fears, this whole aspect of losing my hair; I didn't care anymore, because that bird was repurposing my loss for something new: new life – and that gave me hope.

So that's why I feel that when we all go through difficult times in our lives, by just taking that time to access the birds, you never know what you're going to see, what inspiration will come or, in my case, the will to live; birds will be there for you.”

Tufted Titmouse

A world in crisis

The book came out a year after the world had entered one of its most disruptive and devastating eras, the covid19 pandemic. As a bird lover, Holly already understood the impact that nature could have, and was delighted to read about thousands of people taking up bird feeding and watching as we all searched for something to ease this existential uncertainty; she hails the stores that scrambled to keep up with the demand for feeders and food as heroes, helping literally nations of people with their wellness, enabling them to do one of the best things you can at the worst time.

No-one good wants to thank a global pandemic for something positive happening in their lives but the fact that Holly’s ‘aha moments’ had led to the formation of a wonderful form of therapy, which was not only free but everybody could do it if they wanted to, was an unprecedented bonus. Like many people, the urge to help was the spur. Holly and co-author-to-be Richard created an Ornitherapy group on Facebook, to help distract people and discover the joy of birdwatching, they would post simple instructions.

Courtesy of USWFS, PIXNIO

“Ornitherapy was something I had been thinking about for a couple of years already, and Richard and I had been talking about what we could do to take it to the next level. When the pandemic happened, we knew that people could use birds as that conduit towards peace, to take the edge off the loneliness. Birds are common ground: if you're a bird lover, you already share something with somebody else. Here was this global healthcare crisis where people were suffering from anxiety and depression, but wherever you are in the world, birds are a common language, and in this group we could all speak about birds to each other.

I already had a website, but this group provided the ability to share. I started giving out prompts called Ornitherapy Challenges each day, like, look outside your window or door, notice how a bird interacts with its environment. Does the bird hop, or does it walk? Does it move the tail up and down when it flies or carry it straight? Simple little things. People would take these prompts and go and think about them, they would actually start watching the birds, and then they would report back and share their own pictures. So, this constant feed of prompts inspired and helped shape the book.”

Ornitherapy is not only good for people – it's a conservation initiative. The more people recognize the value of watching birds, the more they want to take care of them and the world that we share.

“I see this is one of the silver linings; people were forced to slow down and go outside, and notice things, and it felt good. Part of that is that we are animals and instinctively our minds know that we need nature for wellness.”

Courtesy of Linhao Zhang, Unsplash

Nature everywhere

For many of us, the natural world is easily accessible and being able to incorporate it into our lives is often possible, plus the science already proves we need nature to be healthy. But since the 1950s, cities have reached outlandish proportions, and are still expanding; today, 56% of the world's population live in cities – 4.4 billion of us – with this expected to increase to nearly 7 of 10 people living in cities by 2050. This means there is a very real danger of most of humanity removing itself from the very environments that keep it well.

Being in the great outdoors or even going for a walk for fun is often viewed as a pleasure and not a right, something you reserve for your vacation, when you’re too tired to do anything. But slowly, there appear to be cracks in this attitude that birdwatching and enjoying time outdoors is not as frivolous or privileged as it once was. The writer Richard Louv talks of our self-inflicted malaise as Nature Deficit Disorder. This is not only a real thing, but a stealthy and voracious killer. Research estimates up to 90% of illness is stress related.

Nature. Courtesy of Markus Spiske, Unsplash

A few years ago, the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds joined forces with the National Health Service in the Shetlands Islands off the coast of Scotland, piloting trials where doctors prescribed nature as part of treating an illness. These have been so successful that the scheme was rolled out in mainland Scotland, and now England. The US is also running similar schemes, so far in 35 states. I ask Holly if she believes it is possible that birdwatching as a mindful activity can become as embedded an instruction for everyone’s normal life in the same way that eating your five-a-day, exercise at least 30 minutes three times a week and so on are.

“I absolutely do. I am extremely optimistic. As you say in the UK, you've got prescriptive nature already in action, also the Wildfowl Wetlands Trust is doing their Blue Prescriptions. In Canada, doctors are actively prescribing National Park passes in partnership with the National Park System. I expect that as we realize more about how easy it is to access nature for our wellbeing then this conversation is going to change.

National park in Jasper, Alberta, Canada. Credit:

The studies are out there that demonstrate our cortisol level, the stress hormone that makes us feel anxious and erodes away at our body’s ability to fight disease and infection, starts to lower after being in nature for just 20 minutes. But we need to reframe how we think about nature. Nature doesn't have to be grand forests with waterfalls. Nature is right outside every human habitat; and I'm speaking specifically about birds because I find birds to be equitable, meaning, birds are in every human landscape, even if that means it's birds in cityscapes like rock pigeons or European starlings or house sparrows. Flowers or grass that shoots up through the sidewalk cracks, that's nature. We just need to look again at how we're thinking about it and understand we don't need to have huge open green spaces to benefit in some way.

A house sparrow, photo taken with Bird Buddy

I have another book coming out that I've co-authored with a German ornithologist called The Power of Birdwatching that's also written so that people could use the natural landscape right outside of their own windows and doors, no matter where they live. Urban parks in cityscapes are some of the best places to observe birds because they're so acclimated to people, they actually come closer and you can have a more intimate connection, like we get when we have a bird feeder.”

Book The Power of Birdwatching. Credit: Freya verlag

Holly has an easy manner when imparting any information, her measured tone and obvious enjoyment of her subject matter shines through every word. I ask her to clarify something she said earlier, how ‘birds are every fiber of her being.’ Her response is suitably impassioned.

“Truly, my life rhythms are driven by the birds. The natural world's calendar dictates my every activity, how I approach the day, where I might go or spend time, just so I can feel the pulse of the birds around me, whether that be watching raptor or warbler migrations, or just to my local patch when I know a certain insect is hatching and birds will be swooping in to catch a snack.

Photo taken with Bird Buddy

Maybe it's how I set up my feeding station or which native plants I'm selecting for my yard to bring birds in closer - all inviting them to come dine, while kindling reciprocity between us. When I turn my attention away from my own world and busy mind, I can connect to the rest of the world through the trails and threads that migratory birds allow us to hold onto – if we take the time to notice. These connections to distant lands, distant people, and distant oceans, help the world become smaller and so, our minds become bigger; and that grip around anxiety and busyness loosens.”

Life lessons

Holly’s resumé is long and impressive: she works for National Audubon's Hog Island camp for adults in Maine, and has been a director for the American Birding Associations Camp Delaware Bay since it began in 2013. It should come as no surprise to see that last year, Holly received the coveted American Bird Association Award for Conservation and Education.

Kids birdwatching. Courtesy of VikaCieraszonak, Wikimedia Commons

“We hold a one-week experience there for teenagers from around the world. The benefits of engaging young people into the natural world and providing these experiences where they can meet other like-minded teens cannot be understated, because after all, they are our future. Once you start teaching birds to children you can also start having these conversations about practicing mindfulness. Of course, I don’t say to them, ‘you're practicing mindfulness’, we don't even need to say that because that's actually what’s happening anyway. I truly believe kids need this more than adults, because today's world is filled with anxiety and stress, statistics are alarming about how many kids are now suffering from depression, suicide rates have skyrocketed.

Photo taken with Bird Buddy

But this is what I love about Bird Buddy – and I'll keep plugging it, anywhere, I really strongly feel that this is going to be so powerful – because, first off, it's different from any other bird feeders, and kids are already dialed into a digital world, so you're speaking their language. If families have a Bird Buddy and everyone can see who's visiting and have conversations and share that magic, a bird is bringing them together and families need that. When we teach kids at an early age to look to nature to find joy and peace and grounding, that's a winning situation; not just for us but also the natural world because these are our future caretakers.

In that older age group, teenagers are trying to figure life out, a lot of really big decisions to make whether it be pursuit of study or getting a job, it's a tough time. I was one of the co-founders of Frontiers in Ornithology that we created in 2018 which is a one-day event, with a line-up of speakers from around the world who are at the cutting edge of bird conservation, in so many different fields.

There’s people who are very much into tracking birds through cellular tracking, for example. Last time we had Catherine Hamilton who is a phenomenal bird artist using her work towards conservation. Because not everybody's going to be a scientist, right? How do you take your skills, whatever they are, and put it towards conservation? It gives kids the opportunity to network and hear how other people have followed their path into their career. We all have different gifts to share and we can share them in different ways and still make an impact.”

Holly Merker on seawall Jean Hall. Photo credit: Jean Hall

Before we depart, as I’m silently plotting to grab my binoculars and spend longer than five minutes finding that woodpecker I’ve heard all morning, I ask Holly what the rest of her day holds.

“I am taking some time to practice self-care with birds today, there’s some red crossbills about 40 minutes away so I’m going hiking with a friend to watch the birds, just for a couple hours because that's all we really need.” She finishes with a wide beam to my webcam: “And then I'll be more productive later.”

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