Joan Strassmann can rattle off trivia about birds as quickly as a Peregrine falcon can blast through the sky.
Did you know that Northern flickers coax their young to leave their nests by continuously shrieking? That American coots sometimes sneak eggs into other hens’ nests? That white brows on a male white-throated sparrow indicate he might be a philanderer?
Here’s another fun, feathered fact: Birdwatching—or even simply listening—can lead to an array of mental-health benefits in humans, including long-lasting stress relief.
“The mental-health benefits are profound,” says Strassmann, who’s the author of the new book Slow Birding: The Art and Science of Enjoying the Birds in Your Own Backyard. “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.”
Birdwatching spiked in popularity during the pandemic, when people were searching for a safe, free, outdoor hobby. Calls to Mass Audubon exploded in 2020: Newly remote workers wanted to know what was going on outside their window, says Joan Walsh, the Massachusetts conservation organization’s chair of field ornithology and natural history. “There’s lots of drama,” she notes—like a soap opera that plays out in the treetops every day. In addition to mesmerizing avian intrigue, birders of any skill level can tap into robust mental health benefits linked to the hobby. “This connection we have with nature is a lot like being in love,” Walsh says. “I don’t know how else to describe it other than attachment.”
Researchers have long sought to understand the perks of observing birds. A study published in October in Scientific Reports found that seeing or hearing birds improved people’s mental wellbeing for up to eight hours. Nearly 1,300 people used a smartphone app to log their mood several times a day, noting whether they could see or hear birds. People with depression, as well as those without a mental-health condition, experienced significant improvements in wellbeing when they had these encounters. The benefits weren’t explained by other environmental factors, like seeing trees, plants, or water, all of which the study controlled for.
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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. Being near 14 additional bird species, the study authors noted, was as satisfying as earning an extra $150 per month. And a small 2013 study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that, of all the natural sounds one might hear, people were most likely to associate birdsong with stress recovery and attention restoration.
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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.
There’s also the fact that birds are, well, everywhere—beautiful, colorful missiles streaking through the sky. “They can fly. They can do something that we can never do, outside of a plane, so there’s that fascination,” says Tina Phillips, assistant director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “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.”
Plus, birds often represent or remind us of certain seasons and places. The arrival of a red-winged blackbird in the first few weeks of March, for example, is a promising clue that spring is headed to the Northeast. Birds gift humans an “ephemeral feeling,” Phillips says, and a “constant reminder of the seasonality of our world and our lived experiences.”
5 ways to start birdwatching
One of the great things about birding is its low barrier to entry, not to mention wide appeal: It’s doable for kids, teens, middle-aged parents, retired folks, and everyone in between. “It’s one of the easiest hobbies to step into,” Phillips says. “All you need is a little bit of natural space—and if you have a pair of binoculars, great, but if you don’t, that’s OK.”
Here are five ways to help your new pastime take flight:
Invite the birds to you.
Want to get better acquainted with your local bird population? Set up a bird feeder, Phillips advises. “That’s going to attract birds to you,” she says. “On any given morning, I get 10 to 15 different species coming to the feeder.” If you’re on a tight budget, you can even make your own with supplies like pinecones and peanut butter.
Those who want to venture beyond their backyard should first visit places with water, says Sharon Stiteler, author of 1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know. All birds get thirsty, so they’re naturally drawn to these spots. “Don’t necessarily pick the park with the thickest forest—you want to stick to wooded edges,” she says. “That’s when you have the best chance to see the birds.”
Use an app to learn your favorite bird songs.
Learning which birds make which sounds is like figuring out a new language. The Cornell Ornithological Lab’s free Merlin Bird ID app makes the identification process easier and more fun.
If you see an interesting bird you’d like to identify, you can answer a few simple questions—how big was it? what were its main colors?—and the app will produce a list of possible matches. You can also upload a photo to increase the odds of finding your bird. Or, upload a clip of the sounds you hear, and receive real-time suggestions for who’s singing. “It does pretty amazing things, and it’s surprisingly accurate,” Stiteler says. “It’s been a game-changer for birding, and I think it’s part of the reason why so many people gravitated to birding during the pandemic.”
Take a birding course.
There’s always something new to learn about birds, Stiteler says: Even a fairly common robin or chickadee might exhibit behavior you haven’t seen before or emit a new sound. Seeking out formal education can help expand your knowledge. Cornell offers a variety of online courses, including about gardening to attract birds, a deep-dive into the world of owls, and understanding bird behavior. Plenty of other organizations do the same.
It can also be helpful to enlist an expert birder for your outings. As Phillips points out, these are people who can identify a bird based on “its overall essence,” versus some super obvious trait, like a big eye ring. “Go out with someone who can tell you what you’re looking for,” she says. “They’ll help you key in on the important parts of the bird that will help you identify it.” To find a guide, reach out to—and consider joining—a local bird club.
Keep a list of birds you see.
Stiteler has been birding since she was seven years old; she considers the feathered creatures her first and truest love. For years, the spruce grouse was at the top of her bucket-list: “It became a running gag—people would send me pictures of spruce grouse,” she says. After traveling for hours in the hopes of seeing one, she would arrive to find a predator there instead.
But last summer—after spending 20 years looking up—Stiteler was biking in Denali National Park in Alaska when she rounded the corner to find a male spruce grouse in the middle of the road. Then two more appeared. “I cried afterwards,” she says. “It was so satisfying.”
Like Stiteler, many birders keep lists: of the birds they hope to see, but also a running log of those they’ve spotted in, say, their backyard or their state. “I know one person who has at least a dozen different lists,” says Christopher Leahy, whose books include Birdpedia. “He has not only his life list, and his yard list, and his county list, but birds he’s heard from bed, birds he’s seen pooping.”
Keeping your own list(s) is a terrific way to become more familiar with what you’re seeing every day, while also creating an archive you’ll be able to return to in the future. If you’re a visual person, consider drawing each bird you see. Leahy recently went birdwatching with a friend who specializes in nature drawing, and while he pointed out different species, she sketched. “You’re creating art, but you’re also keeping a diary in some sense, and it’s a learning thing,” he says. “A perfect way to learn how to identify a bird is to draw it.”
Make your backyard a bird sanctuary.
Birdwatching depends on humans protecting environments that encourage and sustain birdlife. One way to do that is by choosing native plants that attract and protect birds. Not sure what’s best for your area? The National Audubon Society operates a database that allows users to plug in their zip code and see a list of native plants, plus what birds they might entice.
Once you start seeing birds, you can submit your sightings to a global database like eBird, Leahy says. The site documents things like bird abundance and habitat use, and submissions help it maintain real-time data. Volunteers are also always needed to help with efforts like the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, during which people head out to count every bird they hear or see in a 15-mile diameter circle.
Unfortunately, research indicates that bird populations are shrinking at a rapid clip. Data collected from “citizen birders” are helping experts understand what’s happening—and, ultimately, how to prevent it, Leahy says. “Some of the things we’re finding out are a little depressing right now, but if you flip that over, it’s also pointing out where we need to go in terms of conservation, so it’s a positive thing,” he says. That’s true for the birds, as well as for the mental health of all the people who enjoy them.
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Contributor: Angela Haupt