Birds on Your Mind – How Birdwatching Can Make You Happy

Scarlet Macaw

Mind the Birds

Birds are fascinating and beautiful to watch, and their presence enriches our lives. It also turns out that the secret to happiness is flying along a waterway, snuggling in a cavity in a cliff, gliding through the thermals over a sunlit mountain pass; or simply sitting right outside your window, in a tree.

White-booted Racketail

In June 2021, the world’s largest online mental health resource Psychology Today published an article about how birdwatching can be a mindful activity, citing the results of new research carried out specifically about birdwatching during the pandemic lockdowns. Already considered by some to be a socially distanced activity anyway, birdwatching was one of the few things still possible among all the restrictions. The study found that while the distances traveled to see the birds obviously reduced, interest increased significantly among urban birders, and yard birding took off. Many of us (re)discovered the connection that nature has with our own lives, and for seasoned birders, it came as no surprise to find out that one major benefit of birdwatching is that it can actually help us to stay sane, safe, and calm.

Mute Swan

A joint study between the UK’s Exeter University, the British Ornithology Trust and The University of Queensland, Australia, discovered that high levels of mental distress and anxiety felt most noticeably in the mornings were significantly reduced by a couple hours of watching the birds in the afternoon. (The afternoon was monitored as there are less birds visible at that time, and thus gave a realistic average of bird visibility across the entire day). The studies also showed that the type of bird you see doesn’t matter; it’s the time spent watching them that works the magic.

Anyone can do it

Birdwatching is a very simple activity that requires no qualifications, appointments, or medication. Few things in life involve little more than sitting still, being quiet, and letting your mind focus on just one thing. Birdwatching helps you reset your brain, and relax those often overly-tired muscles that have been firing away in the background with every other aspect of your day. Taking the time to watch birds, even for half an hour a day, has been proven to lower heart rates, stress levels and tension, and boost self-care, good sleep, and maintain a healthy outlook on life.

Golden-tailed Sapphire

Bird of the Moment

Much like the birds, our minds are so often “in flight” – off on tangents or making plans, having internal arguments, thinking ahead to dinner or in the past to a good memory, whilst all the time our bodies move us unconsciously through the space we occupy. Mindfulness helps us pay attention to the present moment, non-judgmentally, and take stock of who we are, what we are feeling, and the here and now. A frequent question to birders is “what is your favourite bird?”; a perfect mindfulness response would be “this one here in front of me, right now, in this moment”.

Elegant Tern

However, we must also be mindful of humanity’s lasting effects on the natural world. For too long, the greedy actions of many are devastating the balance the world needs, and evidence that birds are experiencing severe levels of decline is mounting at a terrifying rate. We already have too much evidence that all birds are the canary in the coal mine – if they are suffering, so is the world. But whilst it may be self-centred to view birds through the lens of humanity’s salvation, many among us will say “whatever it takes” – the ongoing and successful conservation of bird species is intrinsic to the health of the world, and, as it turns out, our own happiness.