New Studies Show Bird Watching Is Good For Your Brain

Watching birds can lower stress and boost mental health. Here’s how to tap into bird watching’s health benefits.

April 24, 2017
Bird watching improves mood and boosts your brain. Learn how to tap into bird watching's health benefits.
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Many scientific studies have shown that being in nature can reduce stress and boost mental wellbeing, and a growing number of scientific studies specifically suggest that watching birds and encouraging birds to visit or live in your yard is good for you.

In January 2017, for example, Scientists from the University of Exeter, United Kingdom, the British Trust for Ornithology, and the University of Queensland, Australia, published a study that compared a variety of lifestyle factors with the mental health over 270 people of different ages, incomes, and ethnicities.

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They found that being able to see birds, shrubs, and trees around one’s home and spending more time outside were both linked to a lower risk of feeling anxious or depressed. The results held true whether the participants lived in a congested city area or in a suburban neighborhood. When the team looked closely at the data, they found that the number of birds—even extremely common birds—seen in the afternoon was very strongly linked to being happier.

Here’s how to tap into the benefits of bird-watching.

Take a walk

The easiest way to start bird watching is to start going for long walks.
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Walking is a great overall health-booster in itself and it increases your serotonin and dopamine (mood chemicals that make us feel good) levels while lowering your cortisol (a mood chemical that make us feel stressed) level. To reap the health benefits of walking PLUS those of seeing birds, take time every afternoon (or any other time, if afternoon doesn’t fit into your schedule) for a short stroll in a green, leafy area with birds.

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Become a bird aficionado

As you start consciously watching for birds you may find yourself wondering just what the birds you see are called and decide to start learning about them. You might even find yourself going for walks in a variety of locations just to look for birds. And you will be in good company. A 2013 Leisure Activity survey found that about 5% of us, age 6 or older, in the U.S. participated in bird watching and the percentage has been climbing, especially in younger age groups. Birding is cool!

How to get started

Field guides and a pair of good binoculars are helpful tools for tapping into bird watching's health benefits.
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You don’t need much, just your eyes and ears and a sense of curiosity. Being able to at least amble helps, but many parks have wheelchair-friendly trails where you can see many interesting birds, so you can watch birds no matter what your mobility level may be. Below are some nifty tips for guides, gear, and more.

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Get A Guide: A bird identification book or an online bird identification guide for the region you are birding in is a good investment. Some like the feel of a paper book, others prefer an online guide or app that may include multiple photographs plus audio and even video files (nice features). Check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the National Audubon Society, and WildBirds.com for their ID tools and recommendations.

Get The Right Gear: When you first start birding, take advantage of whatever you already have: binoculars, Aunt Hilda’s opera glasses, or even Great Uncle Joe’s antique spy glass. But soon, if you catch the bug, you will want to invest in a good pair of lightweight binoculars that are suited to birding (and perhaps a good telephoto lens for your camera). “Good” is a relative term here. For comfortable birding you should take both light weight and optical quality into consideration. The strongest binoculars are not always the clearest, so read up at BirdWatching.com and try out a bunch of different models before shelling out big bucks: options range from the relatively affordable Vortex Optics Crossfire ($150 at Amazon.com) all the way up to a $2,500 pair of Swarovski binoculars

Learn where to look for birds

Your local parks or recreation areas are great places to start. Be sure to visit different types of areas: forests, meadows, swamps, and waterfronts to see different kinds of birds. You may be able to find a local birding group that has organized walks you can join (great for new and experienced birders). There are even online tools such as BirdWatchingDaily.com’s zipcode-driven Birdwatching Hotspots to help you find great birding pots near home or further afield.

Or, rather than going looking for birds, you could get crafty and get the birds to come to you.

Open a bird restaurant

Set up a bird feeder to tap into the health benefits of bird watching.
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The most obvious ways to encourage birds to come where you can watch them at your leisure is to turn your yard or balcony into a bird restaurant by providing suitable bird feeders and food. A reliable source of water is also key, especially in the winter. 

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers this great introduction to feeding birds correctly, and here is a great list of tips of what to do (and what not to).

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Often inexpensive feeders are just as good as pricy designer models, but don’t skimp on the feed itself! The “birdseed” sold at your local supermarket or big box store may be inexpensive, but if it is loaded with cheap fillers that the birds won’t eat you will be buying a lot more in the long run. Cheap feeds may also be loaded with seeds of plants that could become invasive in your area, so stick with good quality bird feeds. Find a local feed store or wild bird specialty store and buy feeds that are suited to the birds you want to attract. You may even want to buy organic bird foods to support organic farmers and the larger environment: Wild Wings is one brand to look for.

If you are crafty and want to make your own feeders, birdbaths, and even mix your own bird feeds here are some money-saving ideas for those plus ideas for repurposed birdbaths and even disposable beverage carton nest boxes.

Make your yard into a home for birds

While encouraging birds to visit you is wonderful, you can go further and turn your yard into a bird sanctuary where they can settle down and raise a family by supplying nest boxes and planting native trees and shrubs that will provide natural nesting spots, food, and shelter year-round. Resident birds are not only fun and relaxing to watch, many birds are good at helping to keep the populations of insect pests and even rodents in check, saving you work and grief in the long run. (Here are 10 backyard birds you should attract to your garden.)

Install a birdhouse

Installing birdhouses is one way to tap into the health benefits of bird watching.
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The one-season beverage box bird house mentioned above are quick, easy, and cheap, but in the long run you may well want to supply more permanent homes for specific types of birds. Not all birdhouses are created equal, so it pays to do a little investigating before buying that cute little number at the local craft boutique. Gardener’s Supply offers basic advice on selecting a birdhouse and sells some nice commercial models and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife has a great guide for selecting and installing bird houses. If you have a few basic woodworking tools the Internet is loaded with free birdhouse plans and if you are a gardener you might want to plant some gourds so you can craft some gourd houses come fall.

Grow native plants

Growing native plants, and installing hedgerows, provide birds with attractive habitat.
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Perhaps the most important thing you can do to attract and retain birds is to plant native trees and shrubs in your yard and garden. Many of our common yard plants are pretty but they are not native and offer little or nothing to the wild birds and other local wildlife. It is also important to preserve or recreate wild areas, thickets, and to even leave dead trees standing (in places they won’t fall on anything important of course) to provide nesting sites, shelter, and habitat for birds and for the native insects that the birds eat.

Planting native plants that produce fruit or seeds, especially those that hang on the plant into the winter, is especially good for attracting and retaining birds. Evergreens are great, as they provide snug shelter during the winter. Don’t think you have room? Try creating a multi-species native hedge or crafting a hedgerow in the back of your property to add biodiversity and a variety of bird-friendly resources in a compact space.

No matter how you slice it, watching birds, feeding birds, and gardening for birds are all worthwhile, rewarding, and healthful activities. So what are you waiting for?

Tags: birdsnature