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How Birdwatching Can Benefit Our Health

Look around and listen up to let your health and well-being take flight.

A pair of cardinals
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

“Hi, Pops!”

This is what my 10-year-old son Ben cheerfully calls out every time we see a bright red cardinal fly by or perch on a fence post or in a tree. It’s been a year since my father—his grandfather—died, and I told Ben that some people believe male cardinals symbolize a “visit” from a departed loved one.

This connection has gotten both Ben and me into the habit of scanning for birds. Over time, we’ve discovered the red-wing blackbirds, pileated woodpeckers and ubiquitously encouraging robins that are native to our Massachusetts area. Yellow finches and orioles have crossed our paths, as have herons, mourning doves and swans.

We’re hardly bird-literate enough to describe ourselves as “birders,” and our binoculars aren’t super-powered. But it does feel that once we started noticing our avian friends with more care and attention, we started to understand some of the reasons research supports birdwatching as a healthy hobby.

Cultivate Patience
A walk in the woods is not something to rush through, at any time. But if you’re looking for birds, there’s a necessary slowing down that’s required to ease yourself into the habitat of our skittish flying friends. Simply being in nature, sharing the space with those who call it home, is an exercise in patience, as we recognize that the birds are on their own time, not ours. Some bird songs have even been found by researchers to improve our ability to recover from stress and restore our focus and attention. Take the time to listen to the call of your local birds to be rewarded for your patience.

Reduce Your Stress
Birdwatching is a form of mindfulness, the practice of paying close attention to our surroundings and remaining fully present to the sights, sounds and feelings we encounter in each moment. Over time, being mindful encourages our nervous systems to settle into a calm, peaceful state. Our heart rates slow, and our brains secrete less stress hormone like cortisol. The silence and attention required to observe birds brings us into this state just by showing up and looking around.

Feel More at Home—Wherever You Live
You don’t have to take to the wilderness to observe and enjoy birdwatching. One study conducted in the UK found that people who live in more bird-diverse neighborhoods, rich with gardens and native trees, report lower overall levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

Make Friends (Human and Otherwise)
Study after study connects social relationships with long, healthy lives. While birdwatching is an opportunity to enjoy the solitary pleasures of time in natural spaces, it is also a vibrant community of like-minded seekers who are great to connect with for advice, celebration of unusual sightings and the shared pleasure of birdwatching. Social media is a great way to connect with local birdwatchers and learn about meet-ups, or the American Birding Association offers a state-by-state guide to birding groups across America and Canada.

Are you a backyard birder? Backcountry birdwatcher? How do you enjoy birds?

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