If you’re among the 15 million birdwatchers in the U.S., you’re regularly picking up your binoculars to watch your favorite colorfully feathered friends.
You’re also on the receiving end of an important brain benefit that goes well beyond the pleasure of observing and listening to the birds themselves.
Birdwatching is a popular worldwide activity. Yet despite this fascination, few studies have explored the impact of birding on our mental health. The studies that examined the effect of birdsong found that it relieved psychological stress and mental fatigue.
However, these and other studies involve only small numbers of participants and rely on surveys or questionnaires that require recollection of past experiences or the need to watch or listen to birds in an artificial setting. All these methods are subject to bias and inaccuracy and are therefore unreliable.
Cutting-Edge Technology Made The Study Possible
To overcome these limitations researchers developed The Urban Mind smart phone application. The smartphone app uses Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA), a software program that allows the study of people’s thoughts and behavior in their daily lives by repeatedly collecting data from an individual’s normal environment, at or close to the time they carry out the behavior.
When it comes to birding, EMA software allows an individual’s experience of seeing or hearing birds to be captured in real time in the real world along with answers to a self-reported questionnaire on mental well-being.
“Significantly Better Mental Well-Being”
For the study, 1,292 researchers studied volunteers aged between 16 and 80 who were mostly living in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States. They gathered information on gender, ethnicity, education, and employment as well as whether participants received a diagnosis of depression.
The participants completed a total of 26,856 EMAs between April 2018 and October 2021. The participants reported three times a day, not just on seeing and hearing birds but on whether they saw plants or trees and whether they could see or hear water. This was to distinguish birds from the well-established benefits of being immersed in nature.
Benefits Last Up To Eight Hours
The researchers, led by Kings College London, found that mental wellbeing was significantly better in both healthy people and those with depression when seeing or hearing birds, compared to when not doing so. This benefit lasted up to eight hours.
The effect was robust even after accounting for sociodemographic variables and other aspects of nature. This is the first study to show a direct link between seeing or hearing birds and positive mood.
The researchers concluded by writing: “Visits to habitats with a high degree of birdlife could become part of social prescribing schemes, playing a role in preventing mental health difficulties and complementing more traditional interventions.”
Enriches Everyday Life
Senior author Andrea Mechelli explained, saying, “Our study provides an evidence base for creating and supporting biodiverse spaces that harbor birdlife, since this is strongly linked with our mental health.
“In addition, the findings support the implementation of measures to increase opportunities for people to come across birdlife, particularly for those living with mental health conditions such as depression.”
Landscape architect Jo Gibbons, who collaborated on the project, added: “Who hasn’t tuned into the melodic complexities of the dawn chorus early on a spring morning? A multi-sensory experience that seems to enrich everyday life, whatever our mood or whereabouts.
“This exciting research underpins just how much the sight and sound of birdsong lifts the spirits. It captures intriguing evidence that a biodiverse environment is restorative in terms of mental wellbeing. That the sensual stimulation of birdsong, part of those daily ‘doses’ of nature, is precious and time-lasting.”
The research team reported their findings in the journal Scientific Reports in October.