A sudden rise in birdwatching around the world was one of the rare heartening consequences of pandemic lockdowns. The same restrictions that shut down so many pastimes created space for this one nudging the delightful creatures that had always been present—chipping and singing, sand bathing, and nesting—into the foreground.
Businesses that sell birdfeed and backyard bird feeders reported sales increases of 45 and 50 percent. Novice birders contributed to a new record for spotting bird species on Global Big Day, an annual bird-watching event run by the eBird program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in mid-May (May 13, 2023).
Now that economies have opened up, it’d be reasonable to expect that birds would lose their newfound fans. However, data from Wikipedia and Audubon suggests that although interest in birds dropped off in 2021 compared to the northern hemisphere’s summer of 2020, it remains much higher than in years gone by. Our new passion for birds may have staying power as interest in the pastime shows no signs of slowing.
Researchers who have been investigating the science behind the hobby have discovered that it has numerous proven benefits to mental health and well-being.
According to a recent study published in Scientific Reports, birdwatching and its positive effect on mental health is becoming clearer as research continues. The team used the “Urban Mind smartphone application to examine the impact of seeing or hearing birds on self-reported mental well-being in real-life contexts” on 1,292 participants between April 2018 and October 2021, the study explains. It found that “everyday encounters with birdlife were associated with time-lasting improvements in mental well-being. These improvements were evident not only in healthy people but also in those with a diagnosis of depression, the most common mental illness across the world.”
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This further confirms a growing body of evidence that listening to birds can reduce anxiety and benefit those with depression. Simply hearing the chirps and trills can lessen feelings of paranoia which could potentially lead to researching its effectiveness in psychiatric wards, according to a separate study also published by Scientific Reports.
Other research supports the notion that birds are good for the brain. A 2017 study published in BioScience for example found that bird abundance in urban neighborhoods was associated with a lower prevalence of depression, anxiety, and stress. Another study, published in 2020 in Ecological Economics showed a correlation between happiness and the number of bird species around people’s homes and towns.
What exactly is so soothing about birds? Andrea Mechelli, a professor of early intervention in mental health at King’s College London and author of the recent birdsong study theorizes that multiple factors are at play. Nature helps improve concentration by decreasing mental fatigue, he says, and reduces stress by lowering blood pressure and levels of stress-inducing hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. Plus, birds tend to lure people outside and outdoor activity improves mood through exercise and socialization. “It’s likely that birds make people feel better through all these mechanisms,” he says.
Birdwatching, or birding, as the National Audubon Society affectionately calls it, continues to be a fast-growing outdoor recreational activity and citizen science project.
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While many mental health benefits of birdwatching have been—and are continuing to be—established, one question lingers: Why the fascination with avian wildlife? Tina Phillips, assistant director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Center for Engagement in Science and Nature, told Time magazine, “There’s a lot about birds in terms of their charisma, their behavior, and their accessibility that makes them this perfect group of animals that people can really relate to and resonate with.”
“The mental health benefits are profound,” she added. “Sitting outside and listening to the birds and getting to know their songs is really calming. And to me, the special thing about birds is that they can leave—they don’t have to be there but they have chosen to be where you are and at some point they’ll move on.”
Those interested in birding are in good company: Audubon estimates that there are 47 million birders in the United States. So grab your binoculars, get outside, and indulge in an increasingly popular avocation while immersing yourself in a free form of therapy.
If you’re curious about nature and want to learn more about what’s around you, birding is a great skill and a fun hobby. When you start to take note of the birds around you, you might find yourself more perceptive of other things. You might notice sounds you previously overlooked. You might start to notice small details in your surroundings like individual trees, insects, fruits, and flowers. You might find yourself more in tune with the passing of the seasons. Birding can be a gateway into recognizing and appreciating a wider world that was there all along.
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Here are four great reasons to get into birding today:
- Birding is very low-cost. After the initial investment on a pair of binoculars and an ID guide, the only costs are what you spend on travel and entrance fees.
- You can bird anywhere, anytime. It’s a hobby you can do in your back yard or take with you around the world.
- It’s very rewarding to see something new, to be able to name what you see, and to make discoveries. It’s also only as much work as you want it to be.
- Birding can also be a social activity (or not). Beyond being a fun family activity, birding clubs and park rangers offer programs where you can meet other people and look for birds together pooling knowledge and providing more pairs of eyes and ears.
Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy, and celebration. The hummingbird’s delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and that laughter is life’s sweetest creation.