by Kirsty Costa, host of Weekend Birder podcast
Why do our brains feel better after watching and listening to birds? Kirsty Costa, host of Weekend Birder podcast, went on a quest to discover the mental health benefits of birding.
It’s Friday 30 March 2020. I’m awake and watching the sunrise over my local wetlands on Bunurong Boon Wurrung Country. My brain and body are buzzing with anxiety caused by Melbourne’s first lockdown. “Will I get sick with Covid-19? Will my lungs, already scarred by childhood illness, be able to survive? When will see I my family and friends again? Will I have to work from home forever?”.
I take a deep breath. Suddenly, in the corner of my eye, there is movement. A long, straight beak is followed by brown and cream feathers, long legs and big feet. What the heck is that? Mesmerised, I watch the bird walk cautiously through the long reeds and into shallows. It starts to thrust its beak into the water in search for food. Slowly, I pull out my phone to search for the bird’s name. It’s a ‘Latham’s Snipe’. Wow! Just like me, it regularly flies from Australia to Japan as part of its regular migration. While my flight takes eight hours and hardly any effort, this bird has potentially flown non-stop for three days to make its 7000km journey. Walking away from the wetland, my head is filled with wonder and not filled with anxious thoughts of a global pandemic. I feel satisfied, calm and connected to the world. And I start to wonder, “Did I just do a mindfulness practice, without sitting in meditation or lying on a yoga mat?”.
Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention in the present moment. Dr Luke Smith is a clinical neuropsychologist and an educator at Monash University’s Centre for Consciousness and Contemplative Studies. He says, “Most people think of mindfulness practice as meditating on a chair or cushion, which is an important aspect, but we can also be mindful in our day-to-day lives such as when birdwatching”. Luke explains that by paying full attention to our senses whilst birdwatching (such as to a bird’s song and appearance), and bringing our attention back to these anchors when our mind wanders, we are practicing what is often termed ‘informal mindfulness’. Informal mindfulness is when we are mindful and present in everyday activities and experiences, without the need for formal meditation sessions.
Luke goes on to note that research suggests that this process switches on and off different systems in our brain, “Paying attention in this way deactivates a set of brain regions often called the ‘default mode network’, which is active during mind-wandering and rumination. Overactivation of this brain system has been associated with increased levels of worry and lower mood. We can also see changes in other parts of the brain, particularly with prolonged mindfulness practice. For example, research has shown changes in amygdala functioning, which is a part of the brain that plays a primary role in our emotional responses, such as our flight or fight response”. Mindfulness practice has been shown to benefit mental health, including reducing stress, anxiety, and depression, and improving focus and concentration.
More and more research is being undertaken about the relationship between mental health and connecting with the birds around us. For example, researchers at the Kings College in London asked 1292 participants to collect information about their environment and wellbeing using a smartphone app. Everyday encounters with birds were found to improve mental wellbeing, even in those with diagnosed depression. On average, the benefits were also felt hours later after a participant had seen or heard a bird.
In another study, researchers tested the emotional and cognitive impact on birdsong. 295 online participants were randomly given birdsong or traffic noise recordings to listen to. They self-assessed their emotional state before and after listening to the recordings. Participants reported improve mental wellbeing after listening to birdsong, especially if they listened to a range of birds. They reported decreased mental wellbeing after listening to traffic noise. There is also research published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology that found that listening to birdsong contributed to participants’ attention restoration and stress recovery.
I wasn’t the only one who discovered birdwatching in 2020. Other people have told me that they also found comfort and distraction in watching and listening to local birds. Their new-found hobby has enabled them to not only appreciate the birds around them but also activate a mental health tool when needed.
Liz Hackett lost her husband Paul in an accident in 2019. To help her process her grief in a time of lockdown isolation, she turned to their shared love of birdwatching. Each week, she would take a short walk to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne. She noticed that she was doing birding differently, “I slowed down and I didn’t concentrate as much on logging every bird or trying to get to a certain number of birds every time I visited. It was more about listening and going slow. I stopped to watch the Australasian Swamphens picking grass up in their claws and the Brown Thornbills pecking at the leaves”. After also drawing the conclusion that birdwatching is a mindfulness practice, Liz discovered the Mindful Birding Network. This global network is a group of like-minded people who gather monthly online to connect with others, share stories, explore mindful birding practices, and hear about emerging research and science.
Liz explains that mindful birding is, “turning our attention to birds and nature for self-care. It’s being present without judgment in order to allow an experience of ‘what will be’, and not disappointed by what happens or what doesn’t happen. Just enjoy what you’re seeing at that time. It’s also an exploration of your own curiosity and wonder”. Liz now coordinates the Birding Walk Group for the Friends of Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, with a focus on Mindful Birding. She says that it’s a slow walk that is not dependent on birdwatching ability, “We see what we see. We’re allowed to talk. Sometimes I’ll get everyone to close their eyes and guess how many different types of bird calls they can hear. Not to identify them, but just try and identify the number”. Liz likes how mindful birding reduces any pressure that people might feel about birdwatching, “I’m not an ornithologist and don’t have a degree in ecology. I’m passionate and I know enough about the birds that live in the Gardens, but I don’t know everything. I think that admitting that to my participants releases the pressure of thinking everyone needs to know every species and every call. It makes learning about birds more enjoyable”.
When I saw that Latham’s Snipe at Seaford Wetlands, I became a ‘birdwatcher’. I had always noticed birds but didn’t spend time finding out their stories. As I walked the streets of my neighbourhood, I started to see birds everywhere. I learnt how to tune my ear to their calls, remembering their melodies like my favourite songs. I bought my first pair of binoculars, downloaded some apps and started to collect field guides. I even started keeping a list. I am hooked!
Birdwatching is not just a hobby, it’s something I can lean on when I need to find some peace. It continues to strengthen my resilience amidst the hustle and bustle of life responsibilities, work deadlines and digital distractions. It has been an incredible gift in my life. I have been on new adventures and met a whole heap of amazing people. I decided to pay it forward by creating Weekend Birder podcast. This show is for people who love birdwatching or ‘bird noticing’. It features interviews with everyday people and scientists, who share their stories and advice. We explore a range of topics, from identifying birds to finding good birdwatching spots to using birdwatching equipment. There are also ‘Tune Your Ear’ episodes so you can get to know bird calls. Episodes are short so you can get outside and try out your new knowledge and skills.
Weekend Birder Season 2 has just started and the first two episodes are about birdwatching and mindfulness. You can hear interviews with Dr Luke Smith and Liz Hackett about the science and about their personal experiences. The podcast is free on your favourite podcast app or you can listen at weekendbirder.com.