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Ornitherapy: The therapeutic power of birdwatching

This article was first published in the May/June 2021 issue of BirdWatching magazine.

The air felt heavy and damp, as if painted onto my skin with a large, wet brush. Predictably, in the mid-day heat of the Neotropics, the forest was mostly still. Only the leaf-cutter ants continued their march unfazed — their jaws laden with crookedly cut leaves as they walked in single file at my feet. Overhead, an almost imperceptible breeze murmured through the rainforest canopy, too far above my head to provide me with any relief. But, in truth, I was used to the heat, and in that moment, my attention was elsewhere. I was focused on the only other movement I could detect — a soft rustling coming from deep in the forest — the unmistakable rhythm of a bird tossing the dry leaves that carpeted the forest floor in search of insects.

If this had been a “normal” day, I would already have had my binoculars at the ready. I would have been crouching, squatting, standing on tiptoes, twisting my body like a contortionist to try to get a glimpse of the bird through the thick understory vegetation. On a normal day, I would have felt anxious to see it, to identify it. But this was not an ordinary day for me. That morning, on top of a particularly stressful few months, I had received some difficult news. So, when I got in my car and drove to Metropolitan Natural Park in Panama City, where I lived, I only knew I needed to be outside and in the company of birds.

I don’t know how long I stood at the trail’s edge, but eventually, the bird started to slowly move out from the understory toward me. When it emerged, I could clearly see the whitish eyebrow and rose-pink bib of a male Rosy Thrush-Tanager. Normally, this species is hard to see since it spends most of its time hidden, flitting about the understory or bopping along on the ground. But that day, the bird continued its foraging in the open — a perfect and rare opportunity for a photo. But my camera and my iPhone (and eBird app) stayed in my backpack. My binoculars remained unused around my neck. I didn’t want anything to interrupt the experience.

The author’s sighting of a male Rosy Thrush-Tanager in a Panama City park helped reduce her stress on a difficult day. Photo by Dubi Shapiro

For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t dwelling on the past or fretting about the future. I wasn’t thinking about the news I had just received. For those few minutes, I no longer felt sadness. Instead, I was completely absorbed in this moment and in watching this bird. When I look back on that day, almost four years ago, I can still recall the feeling of being a little bit lighter and a little bit freer. It was my first true realization of how powerful ornitherapy — birding for the specific purpose of reducing stress — can be.

Why Ornitherapy Matters

Fast forward to 2021, and for most of us, the world and our lives seem unrecognizable compared to how we lived back then. Due to the novel coronavirus, we have had to alter the ways in which we work (if we can work at all), the ways we interact with others, and how we take care of our own needs. I spent the first few months of the pandemic “stranded” in my native California. I had flown there from Panama on my way to India to search for snow leopards when airports began to shut down, and people were asked to remain inside for their safety and that of others. Daily, I watched the news as COVID-19 cases and deaths in the United States and around the world began to rise right alongside unemployment rates. On top of this, other challenging events took place around the globe, from fires in the Amazon to flooding in Bangladesh to racially motived violence at home and abroad. I couldn’t shake the persistent feeling of being untethered, that our most intimate connections were being lost. It felt as if something important, something vital, was slipping through our fingers.

Over the past year, three things have become clear: First, that self-care is key, especially if we are in a position of caring for others. Second, being mindful — fully present in the moment — can help us regulate emotions and even positively influence our thought patterns in the long-term. Finally, one of the best ways to care for ourselves and to practice mindfulness is focusing on the wonders of the natural world.

Books, popular articles, and peer-reviewed manuscripts abound that expound on the connection between good mental, physical, and emotional health and being in nature. In his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, author Richard Louv details the benefits of a society connected to the natural world, including reduced stress, anxiety, obesity, and disease for both children and adults alike. An article on ornitherapy published in the British Medical Journal in 1979 read, “neither the sentimentalist nor the ethologist would deny that the observation of birds has a real effect on their own emotions. This emotional influence can be turned — to good effect.”

In the past few years, more and more studies have come out that show us that birding, specifically, provides all of these benefits and more. Findings published in BioScience in 2017 demonstrated that, particularly for people living in an urban setting, “more bird species in the environment and watching birds have been shown to be good for people’s psychological well-being, whereas listening to bird song has been shown to contribute toward perceived attention restoration and stress recovery.”

And a 2020 article published in Ecological Economics showed a positive correlation between the richness of bird diversity and people’s feelings of satisfaction in life. In short, more birds in one’s life was on par with life satisfaction related to a proportionate increase in income.

Why Ornitherapy Works

Many reasons account for why birdwatching, in particular, is so uplifting to the spirit and beneficial to the mind. Birding, by its very nature, teaches us patience and gently coaxes us into calm. Loud noises and quick movements will frighten most birds away. Thus, observing birds in the wild begs for stillness and silence — skills that, once learned, can help us in other trying situations. Searching for birds also demands our full attention. A quick look at our phone or a thought that sidetracks us might mean a missed opportunity to spot a bird before it takes flight.

Once a bird is in our sights, there is so much to hold our attention. For some, it might be the movements of the bird — the flitting of a sparrow or the regal soaring of a hawk — that holds them rapt. Others might prefer to focus on the colors — whether it’s the bright red of a Northern Cardinal contrasting with the green bush in which it perches or the muted palette of a female Red-winged Blackbird. Others still might prefer to focus on the sounds, such as the watery notes of a Common Raven or the ruffling of a Turkey Vulture’s feathers. It isn’t what we choose to focus on that matters but rather the simple act of mindfulness.

Finally, birds are everywhere. Whether you live in the mountains, by the sea, in the desert, or near the neon-lit streets of a major city, birds will be near for you to find, which means ornitherapy is accessible to everyone.

How to Practice Ornitherapy

It is clear that spending time in nature is beneficial, and birding might be one of the best ways to do that. For those of us who love birding, we already know what the latest research is telling us. And in these times, many of us, perhaps, have already turned to birdwatching to help us cope. But, in a world that can seem too fast-paced, technology-driven, and hectic, even birding can sometimes be stressful.

How many times do we find ourselves running from spot to spot in search of a new bird, perhaps only to be disappointed at the end of the day because our “target” bird failed to make an appearance? How often do we forget to truly observe a bird and its behavior, for as long as it lets us, before we look down to check it off our list? Or how many times do we catch ourselves not even bothering to look at a bird right in front of us because it is “too common?” The answer for many of us is probably “too often.”

This is where ornitherapy comes into play. The idea behind it is simple: Watching a ubiquitous Cattle Egret wading through a field can be as powerful, or even more so, as witnessing a Peregrine Falcon stooping with closed wings into a dark and restless cloud of starlings. Listening to the deep calls of a Mourning Dove perched on a wire above our home can bring as much peace as listening to the melodic trilling of a Swainson’s Thrush from deep within a forest. Surely, a House Sparrow and a Rock Pigeon still hold the power to delight us, if we let them.

Though there is no one right way to practice ornitherapy — what works for one person might not work for another — it can be fun and rewarding to try birding in a new way. And it just might do us good.

Go it alone: At a time when many of us are feeling isolated, it can seem contradictory to actively spend more time alone. However, studies have shown that being the only human around is key for us to form lasting emotional bonds with our non-human neighbors. If you feel comfortable and it is safe to do so, spend some time with only birds and birdsongs to keep you company.

Take comfort in the familiar: Actively focus on observing a bird you have seen dozens if not hundreds of times before. Set up a comfortable spot — whether you are seated at your garden watching a feeder or at your window that looks out onto a busy street — and watch. Observe the patterns of the bird’s feathers, its behavior, listen to its calls. Perhaps you will notice something new or surprising.

Bring a friend and bird like a child: Picasso famously said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael but a lifetime to paint like a child.” What might it mean to bird like a child? How might it feel to experience genuine joy at the smallest of things? Take a child, or even a novice birder of any age, birding with you. Glean the benefits of seeing a common species through new eyes. Can you remember the moment that brought you to birds in the first place?

Leave the list and the field guide behind: Many of us enjoy keeping lists — they serve as wonderful memories of a trip and are beneficial to the scientific community. But, if you are a lister, try leaving the list aside as well as the field guide. Do we observe a bird differently if we don’t know its name?

Listen to calls: Birds are some of the best musicians around. When you hear a bird calling, stop what you are doing, if you can. Close your eyes and just listen. Don’t worry about identifying the bird or what the call might mean. Just enjoy the music as you would your favorite song on the radio.

Forgo the camera and pick up a pencil: Photography is a wonderful hobby, and for some, it might be their way to enter into a mindful state. For others, however, photography can be a distraction. It is easy to become drawn in by the view finder — looking down at the camera, adjusting apertures and shutter speeds and trying to get the “perfect” shot — rather than actually looking at the bird. A wonderful alternative to this is nature sketching. Whether you can draw or not, try sitting for a few moments with pencil and paper in hand. Sketching draws you in (no pun intended) and compels you to focus on the tiniest details and relaxes the mind. If drawing seems too daunting, journaling about your experiences can also be very calming and restorative.

No matter where, how, or why we choose to watch birds, birding can bring more benefits than we may have imagined. It provides us solitude when we need it and can help foster real connections when we need those, too. As Wendell Berry wrote in his poem, “The Peace of Wild Things,” “When despair for the world grows in me … I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things …”

Practicing ornitherapy can help us to relax, to focus our minds, to work through grief, and to find solace. And, if we let it, it might help us to replace some of what we have lost, perhaps at times, with something even better.

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Marta Curti

Marta Curti

Marta Curti is a biologist with The Peregrine Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raptor conservation worldwide. She is cofounder of Whitehawk Birding and Conservation, a birding tour company with a strong conservation through environmental education component. And she is a published author of several bilingual children’s books and a novel.

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