Being in nature has always been beneficial to our mental health, but it has become particularly important in the coronavirus pandemic. Ruth Miller, of Birdwatching Trips in north Wales, outlines how bird watching can contribute to our mental wellbeing.
It’s pretty fair to say that all our lives have been turned upside-down in the past few months thanks to COVID-19. Hundreds of thousands of people in Britain and around the world have been infected by the virus and too many of those have sadly lost their lives to this invisible killer.
Those who have remained healthy have found themselves cooped up at home for weeks on end, only allowed to venture out for the essentials of food and exercise. “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it,” as Mr Spock (allegedly) once said in TV’s Star Trek. None of this is good for our mental health.
One constant through these turbulent times, however, has been the cycle of the natural world. While we’ve been stuck indoors in lockdown, the wildlife outside has continued its busy spring routine as normal. It has been oblivious to the human turmoil and has possibly even benefitted from our situation as we cause them less disturbance.
During the months that we’ve stayed at home, migrant birds have returned to their traditional nesting sites across the country and joined our resident species for the breeding season. They’ve defended a territory, found a mate and raised the next generation. Many of those are now able to make their own way in the world.
That familiar reassuring cycle has helped many of us cope with the unnatural, and frankly sometimes scary, circumstances in which we’ve found ourselves.
Getting a mental health boost
Across the country, people have been watching the birds in their garden with renewed attention. They have been relishing their colour and life, and possibly feeling rather envious of their freedom to travel. Even people who don’t claim to be bird watchers have commented on the birdsong that they can hear in urban areas now there’s less traffic noise. After all, who doesn’t feel their spirits lift at the beautiful song of a Blackbird.
A daily exercise walk has been the perfect opportunity to look for birds to give ourselves a physical and mental boost. There’s the feeling of anticipation each time you walk out of the door: what will I see this time?
Photo credit: Ruth Miller, Birdwatching Trips, Blackbird
There’s a little surge of pleasure when the anticipated bird hops up into view. You smile an inner smile as a male Stonechat perches on top of a gorse bush and flicks its tail. You feel a dopamine rush of happiness as a Peregrine Falcon tears across the sky in pursuit of its prey. Birds are still flying; life is still good.
Bird watching is good for you. Most of us who spend time watching birds have always known this, but now it has been officially recognised. It has never been more important for our mental and physical health than it is now, during lockdown.
The science of natural healing
There’s been a fair amount of research in recent times to prove the link between watching birds and the positive benefits to our mental and physical health.
Back in 2007, the RSPB commissioned a study into the subject by Dr William Bird, strategic health advisor to Natural England. His report showed that engaging with the natural world has positive health benefits. It is good for our mental health and general wellbeing.
Photo credit: Ruth Miller, Birdwatching Trips, Birdwatching on Great Orme
Going out and looking at nature gives us something more interesting than ourselves to focus on. And it connects us with other living beings. Just looking at a natural landscape can help us to de-stress and recharge our batteries.
In 2017 a study by the University of Exeter reinforced the connection between watching birds and good health. It found that looking out of your window at birds and greenery can make you feel more relaxed. This is the case at home and at work, in a town or in the country, wherever you may be. In fact, the more birds you see, the less stress you will feel. It’s the perfect excuse to gaze out of the window if ever there was one!
Why is bird watching so good for you? Well, to start with it gets you out into the fresh air and moving. Walking is good exercise as it can boost those happy hormones. If you’re outside on a sunny day you’re also absorbing Vitamin D, which is good for healthy bones.
Health benefits of bird watching
Bird watching is good therapy for people. Like playing a musical instrument for pleasure, it’s an activity that requires you to concentrate enough to forget your worries. If I’m busy scanning the bushes for birds, I’m there in the moment. I forget to worry about when I’ll be able to work again or how I pay my bills in the meantime. Watching birds takes all my attention and I forget everything else. It’s the ultimate mindfulness activity.
But it goes further than that. Watching birds helps your ‘social health’ too. It increases your sense of connection with others, even if you’re on your own. It’s true, the pleasure you feel from watching a bird is far greater if you share the moment with others. It’s good to go ‘Wow!’ inside your head if you see an incredible bird. But it’s even better if you can share it with someone else and both go ‘Wow!’ together.
Photo credit: Ruth Miller, Birdwatching Trips, Fulmar
My local patch is the Great Orme’s Head at Llandudno in North Wales. I’ve exercised there on a daily basis during lockdown. I’ve spent a lot of time watching the Fulmars sitting on the cliff ledges overlooking Llandudno Bay. These wonderful tube-nosed birds chuckle and bicker in their pairs and the volume of noise increases dramatically if another Fulmar swoops too close to them.
Other people regularly walk on the Orme and over the past months I’ve learned to recognise their faces. From a safe 2m distance, of course. Sometimes we’ve been able to share the moment as a Fulmar has soared low over our heads on its distinctive stiff wings. They can be so close that we can see the details of their dark eyes, tubenose bill and gentle expressions.
I exchange a laugh and a smile with my fellow walkers and our morning is transformed for the better simply by sharing that beauty.
So, it’s official – bird watching is good for your mental health. If you ever feel that self-isolating is getting too much, just stop to watch a bird and you will feel better. If anyone asks why you’re gazing out of the window, studying your garden or staring deep into a bush, the answer is you’re looking after your health.
Ruth Miller is the co-owner of Birdwatching Trips with her partner Alan Davies. They specialise in relaxed-pace guided bird watching day trips and tours in North Wales, around the British Isles and abroad. For more information, contact Birdwatching Trips.
‘Natural Thinking’, by Dr William Bird, 2007
‘Doses of Neighborhood Nature: The Benefits for Mental Health of Living with Nature’, by Dr Daniel Cox of University of Exeter, 2017