If you read my last post about How to Relieve Stress and Relax While in Quarantine, then you may have noticed I mentioned birdwatching can reduce stress. The point was when we get excited, like when we see a new bird species for the first time, our brains release dopamine—a feel good hormone.
It’s true that during the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve all been relegated to backyard birders. Consequently, it’s not likely you’re going to see a new species at your feeders (but if you do, tell us!). Still, there are ways other than dopamine-inducing discoveries by which birdwatching can contribute to a sense of well-being and relief.
The Stress-Relieving Power of Birdwatching
There’s plenty of research substantiating the benefits of nature’s bounty and its calming effect on us. Fragrant flowers, dignified trees, fresh air, running brooks, and serene lakes all serve to make us less anxious.
The authors of a 2016 article in the Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health suggest this reaction to our natural environment makes perfect sense.
When you think about the 6-7 million years of human evolution, we’ve spent about 99.99% of our time living in the natural environment. The natural world is our home; it physiologically feels right. Cities stress us out!
But the call of the wild, specifically bird calls, calm the stressed-out beast.
For example, there’s an often-quoted study conducted by the University of Exeter, the British Trust for Ornithology, and the University of Queensland. It suggests that people living in an area plentiful with trees, shrubs, and chirping birds may have a lower chance of experiencing anxiety, depression, and stress. The researchers associated the effect with the number of birds that people could see during the afternoon.
And there are people who have never heard of this study, but who will readily tell you how relaxing birdwatching is for them. Heather Wolf is a bird guide with NYC Audubon in New York. She says, “All of the things that might be weighing you down in your daily life, it’s an escape. You forget about them when you’re birding[.]”
But don’t worry if you can’t see the birds you can hear. The relaxing rewards of birdwatching can be had just by listening.
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology was very detailed in its findings. The relevant point? Certain “bird songs and calls were found to be the type of natural sound most commonly associated with perceived stress recovery and attention restoration.”
In layman’s terms, listening to birds made people feel better and more able to concentrate.
See also: How Birding Benefits Your Health
Birdwatching Encourages Mindfulness
Mindfulness, or “being in the moment,” is a mental state achieved by focusing on the present moment. It means calmly acknowledging and accepting without any judgment your feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.
If you think achieving mindfulness is easy, it isn’t. It’s why “practicing mindfulness” is an acceptable expression.
For many, yoga and meditation are means to mindfulness… but not for me.
With all due respect, poses like “downward-facing dog” just don’t do it for me. Less so does a pose called “the corpse.”
The same with meditation. I find it impossible to quiet my mind. In fact, trying to empty my mind is entirely stressful. It’s frustrating, and frustration isn’t something I want to practice.
But suggest birdwatching as a way toward mindfulness and you’ve got my attention.
David Standish, a writing professor at Northwestern University, quipped that birdwatching “was one of the world’s dumbest ways to spend time, right in there with ice fishing and seeking political office.” Then he had the opportunity to write about it.
Later, in a subsequent article, Standish wrote, “Paying attention to birds in the city lets you see more, and for me has spilled over into other things. Doing it gives you the habit of looking carefully, noticing details that never seemed to be there before.”
Quiet and Patience
Kim Abson is a doctor at the Polyclinic in Seattle. After 20 years as a birdwatcher, she says it’s made her more mindful and a better doctor. “Birds,” she’s quoted as saying, “are easily startled, taking flight at the smallest sound.”
Similar things happen with [people] in the clinic. You must be patient and not interrupt their story. Being quiet and patient makes you a better doctor when you are able to let [them] go deeper into their story, you can better empathize with them and understand their health issues.
It’s “being quiet and patient” that resonates so clearly with birdwatchers. With birdwatching you need to focus your senses. You need to wait patiently and remain quiet until that flash of yellow passes across your view. Then there’s the careful observation of the bird…
What’s it doing? How’s it doing it? Does it notice me? How’s it reacting to me?”
Dr. David Creswell of Carnegie Mellon University studies how mindfulness training affects stress response and other mental and physical health outcomes. He says that watching birds in this manner counts as mindfulness. When watching birds, he notes, “You’re really having an explicit goal to attend to sounds. To really be attentive, that certainly counts as mindfulness.”
Give Birdwatching a Try
You don’t need a lot to derive the stress-relieving benefits of birdwatching. A quiet spot (your porch, deck, or patio will do while we’re stuck at home), some patience, and a willingness to focus is all you need. As Greg Presto, writing for Vice.com, proclaims, mindful birdwatching “doesn’t mean you have to become a binoculars-toting, Latin name-spouting nerd.”
Just for the record, I love nerds—especially binoculars-toting, Latin name-spouting ones.