Bird watching has great mental health benefits.  Here's how to get started

Joan Strassmann can rattle off bird trivia as fast as a peregrine falcon can blast through the sky.

Did you know that northern wagtails force their young to leave their nests by screaming incessantly? That coots sometimes sneak eggs into other hens’ nests? That a male white-throated sparrow’s white eyebrows indicate he may be a rogue?

Here’s another fun feathered fact: Bird watching, or even just listening, can lead to a number of mental health benefits for people, including long-lasting stress relief.

“The mental health benefits are enormous,” says Strassman, who is the author of the new book Slow Birding: The Art and Science of Enjoying 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 chose to be where you are, and at some point they will move on.”

Bird watching gained popularity during the pandemic, when people were looking for a safe, free outdoor hobby. Calls to Mass Audubon exploded in 2020: Newly remote workers wanted to know what was happening outside their window, says Joanne Walsh, chair of field ornithology and natural history for the Massachusetts branch. “There’s a lot of drama,” she notes — like a soap opera that plays out in the treetops every day. In addition to the mesmerizing avian intrigue, birders of all skill levels can benefit from solid mental health benefits associated with the hobby. “This relationship we have with nature is a lot like being in love,” says Walsh. “I don’t know how else to describe it other than affection.”

Researchers have long sought to understand the benefits of bird watching. A study published in October in Scientific reports found that seeing or hearing birds improved people’s mental state for up to eight hours. Nearly 1,300 people used a smartphone app to log their mood several times a day, noting whether they saw or heard birds. People with depression, as well as those without a mental health condition, experienced significant improvements in well-being when they had these meetings. The benefits were not explained by other environmental factors, such as seeing trees, plants or water, all of which the study controlled for.

Read more: Why doctors prescribe nature walks

Other research supports the idea 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 lower prevalence of depression, anxiety, and stress. Another study, published in 2020 Ecological economy, showed a link between happiness and the number of bird species around people’s homes and cities. Being close to 14 additional species of birds, the study authors note, is as satisfying as earning an extra $150 a month. and a a small study from 2013 in Journal of Environmental Psychology found that of all the natural sounds a person can hear, people are most likely to associate birdsong with stress relief and restoration of attention.

What exactly is so soothing about birds? Andrea Meccelli, 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 reducing mental fatigue, he says, and reduces stress by lowering of blood pressure and levels of stress-inducing hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. Also, birds tend to lure people outside, and outdoor activity improves mood through exercise and socialization. “Birds probably make people feel better through all these mechanisms,” he says.

There is also the fact that birds are everywhere – beautiful colorful rockets fly in the sky. “They can fly. They can do something that we can never do outside of an airplane, so there’s that fascination,” says Tina Phillips, assistant director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. “There’s a lot about birds in terms of their charisma, demeanor and approachability that makes them this perfect group of animals that people can really relate to and resonate with.”

Also, 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 heading northeast. Birds give people “an ephemeral feeling,” Phillips says, and “a constant reminder of the seasonality of our world and our experiences.”

5 ways to start bird watching

One of the great things about birdwatching is its low barrier to entry, not to mention its broad appeal: it’s possible for kids, teenagers, middle-aged parents, retirees and everyone in between. “It’s one of the easiest hobbies to get into,” says Phillips. “All you need is a little natural space – and if you have binoculars, great, but if you don’t, that’s OK.”

Here are five ways to help your new hobby take flight:

Invite the birds to you.

Want to get to know the local bird population better? Put out a bird feeder, advises Phillips. “It will attract birds to you,” she says. “Every morning I get 10 to 15 different species coming to the feeder.” If you’re on a budget, you can even make your own with supplies like pine cones and peanut butter.

Those looking to get outside their backyard should first visit places with water, says Sharon Stiteler, author of 1001 secrets every birder should know. All birds are thirsty, so they are naturally attracted to these places. “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 of seeing the birds.”

Use an app to learn your favorite bird songs.

Learning which birds make which sounds is like learning a new language. The Cornell Ornithological Laboratory is free Merlin Bird ID App makes the identification process easier and more fun.

If you see an interesting bird that you want to identify, you can answer a few simple questions – how big was it? what were its primary colors? – and the app will display a list of possible matches. You can also upload a photo to increase the chances of finding your bird. Or upload a clip of the sounds you hear and get real-time suggestions about who’s singing. “It does some pretty amazing things and it’s surprisingly accurate,” says Stiteler. “It changed the rules of birdwatching, and I think that’s part of the reason so many people turned to birdwatching during the pandemic.”

Take a bird watching course.

There’s always something new to learn about birds, Stiteler says: Even a fairly ordinary robin or chick can exhibit a behavior you haven’t seen before or make a new sound. Seeking formal education can help you expand your knowledge. Cornell offers a variety of online courses, including gardening to attract birds, a deep dive into the world of owls, and understanding bird behavior. Many other organizations do the same.

It can also be helpful to hire an experienced birder for your outings. As Phillips points out, these are people who can identify a bird based on its “total essence” versus some super obvious feature, like a large eye ring. “Date someone who can tell you what you’re looking for,” she says. “They will help you understand the important parts of the bird that will help you identify it.” To find a guide, contact a local bird club and consider membership.

Keep a list of the birds you see.

Stiteler has been birding since the age of seven; she considers feathered creatures her first and truest love. For years, spruce was at the top of her list: “It became a joke—people would send me pictures of spruce,” she says. After traveling for hours in hopes of seeing one, she would arrive to find a predator there.

But last summer — after spending 20 years searching — Stiteler was biking in Alaska’s Denali National Park when he turned a corner and found 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 guy who has at least a dozen different lists,” says Christopher Leahy, whose books include Birdpedia. “He has not only his life list, his yard list and his county list, but birds he’s heard from the bed, birds he’s seen poop.”

Keeping your own list(s) is a great way to become more familiar with what you see each day, while creating an archive that you can refer back to in the future. If you’re a visual person, consider drawing every bird you see. Leahy recently went birding with a nature-painting friend, and as he pointed out different species, she sketched. “You’re creating art, but you’re also keeping a journal in a sense, and that’s something that’s learned,” he says. “The perfect way to learn how to identify a bird is to draw it.”

Make your backyard a bird sanctuary.

Bird watching depends on people protecting environments that encourage and support bird life. One way to do this is through selection of native plants which attract and protect birds. Not sure what’s best for your area? The National Audubon Society works with a database which allows users to plug in their zip code and see a list of native plants as well as what birds they might attract.

Once you start seeing birds, you can submit your sightings to a global database like eBird, says Leahy. 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 festival Christmas bird countduring which people set out to count every bird they hear or see in a circle 15 miles in diameter.

Unfortunately, research shows that bird populations are shrinking at a rapid rate. The data collected by “citizen birds” helps experts understand what’s going on — and ultimately how to prevent it, Leahy says. “Some of the things we’re finding are a bit depressing at the moment, but if you turn that around, it also shows us where we need to go in terms of conservation, so that’s a positive thing,” he says. This is true both for the birds and for the mental health of all the people who enjoy them.

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