A Dose of Nature: Why Birding Will Boost Your Mental Health

Bird watching is more than an enjoyable hobby—find out how it’s also good for your physical and mental health.

You know the old saying “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”? Well, you could say that about birds. Sure, birdwatching, photographing and feeding birds is a fun hobby, but there’s much more to it than that. This simple activity can provide major health benefits and add to the quality of life for just about anyone.

Take a look at how a little dose of feathered friends and Mother Nature can have a big impact on your well-being.

Health Benefits of Birding

birding healthRon Newhouse
Birding activities like identifying a new bird at your feeder help keep your brain strong.

When you think about the benefits of birding, a few points may immediately come to mind, such as taking walks and getting fresh air. And you’d be right about both. But now researchers say there’s even more good news for anyone who doesn’t leave the house without binoculars, and even for those who prefer to watch from the backyard or a park bench. Bird-watching and exposure to nature have profound positive effects on not only physical health but also mental well-being.

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Bird Therapy in Action

Cute Palm Warbler Portrait Close Up In SpringGummyBone/Getty Images
Start a list of birds you hope to see, such as a palm warbler, for motivation to head outdoors.

Tina Toth of Sheridan, Wyoming, can attest to the benefits of birding. For more than a decade, she was afflicted by migraines and spent countless hours with neurologists. Then, in 2013, a spinal tap revealed that her spinal fluid pressure was three times the normal level. “I was diagnosed with idiopathic intracranial hypertension. The pressure pushes against your brain in a similar way as a tumor,” she says. In the 10 months following her diagnosis, several attempts to drain cerebrospinal fluid were made, ultimately leading to a surgically implanted shunt—a system that continues to give her relief.

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“Over those months, there were many times I was determined to walk or sit on my porch and try to be ‘normal,’” she says. “Then I started to notice birds. They gave me something to focus on besides my own pain.” With the help of a simple field guide, she started identifying western kingbirds, Say’s phoebes, yellow-headed blackbirds and northern harriers. “It served as a first step into a larger world of birding,” she says. “It’s really an ongoing outcome for me, but specifically, after a long day, a stressful event or a change in life, just stepping out the front door for a walk around the neighborhood to look for birds brings me peace.”

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What Science Has to Say

Adirondack Chair At LakeRoy Morsch/Getty Images

Researchers in Oregon recently looked at evidence from five studies and found that outdoor recreational activities (such as hiking, canoeing or cross-country skiing) are associated with feelings of wellbeing, including life satisfaction.

And these findings held true regardless of age, gender, income, education level, physical fitness or knowledge of nature. In other words, people could answer yes if asked, “Are you a happy person?” If those types of activities are not accessible, you can rest assured— literally. Researchers in Kentucky found that people who rested outdoors versus inside showed an increase in positive feelings and a decrease in tiredness. This means that simply watching a bird feeder for even as little as 10 minutes can be beneficial to your psychological health.

It’s no surprise then that researchers in the U.K. recently concluded that people who live in neighborhoods with more afternoon bird populations report less stress, anxiety and feelings of depression. Perhaps this information could be useful to teenagers, as 20% of them will experience depression before adulthood. In fact, one study found that when bird-watching was introduced as a means of high school physical education, students reported decreased confusion, fatigue and tension.

For 18-year-old Klee Bruce of Springfield, Missouri, watching birds brings bliss from teenage challenges. “You just see the bird in front of you, and everything else—all your problems, worries, stresses, all of it—just vanishes,” she says. “Having that kind of focus and clarity can be very soothing.”

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Why Birding Helps Your Health

Mixed Race Girl Using Binoculars In WoodsMarc Romanelli/Getty Images

Ashley Dayer is a conservation social scientist and researcher at Virginia Tech, where she studies influences and behaviors that relate to conservation, including bird conservation. She says there are a variety of opinions for why nature promotes mental well-being. “Theories about people’s attraction to viewing and to being in nature often tie to humans’ long evolutionary history of connection to natural environments,” she says. “In other words, people are attracted to places that were essential to our survival as a species.”

This may sound familiar to Klee, who remembers a particularly rough winter mentally for her. She was sitting on her dock one evening when she spotted a pair of horned grebes in full breeding plumage. “I felt like my own thought patterns and experiences aligned with the changing of the seasons and the molting of the grebes,” she says. “I drew a lot of peace and clarity from that moment.”

Check out the ultimate guide to watching birds in every season.

Adjusting to the New Normal

bluebird house placementCourtesy Linda Lesperance
Set out birdhouses and feeders and look for unexpected moments of joy from nature.

The spread of COVID-19 has disrupted the way people live. Change brings uncertainty but, as readers write in, this experience has helped many rediscover the soothing qualities of their backyards. Amy Imperato of Michigan City, Indiana, writes, “Like many, I worked a 40- to 60-hour workweek. Then quarantine hit. It gave me the time to enjoy my backyard and introduced me to birding. I’ve counted 51 species in my backyard alone!”

The slowdown has set an example for longtime birders, too. Being able to observe a pair of eastern bluebirds raising their young inspired Susanne Miller of Manassas, Virginia, to stay patient. She writes, “The birds shared the chores, carrying materials and guarding the nest. It was a lesson in cooperation I hoped my husband and I would learn while being confined.”

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Find Your Place

Many organizations offer opportunities for new and veteran birders.

  • Young Birder Clubs offer exciting adventures for kids and teens. Find a list of clubs across the country at aba.org or ebird.org.
  • Join an Audubon chapter. Find a group near you at audubon.org.
  • Check out a local nature center. Many offer a variety of bird walks throughout the year.
  • Ready to set up a feeder or add to your collection? Your local Wild Birds Unlimited store can help.

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More Reasons to Go Birding

Birding Makes You Happy

cardinal meaning and symbolismCourtesy Erin Calamusso
Go on a bird walk to clear your head

Although it’s possible to do a lot of birding just by looking out the window, sooner or later birds will lure us outdoors. While this alone can lift your spirits, there really is a scientific tie between your mood and being outside. When we’re outdoors moving around and breathing fresh air, we tend to take deeper breaths. With more oxygen transported to all the cells of our bodies, including our brains, we become more alert, and our mood is likely to be elevated. Also, during half an hour in the sun, we can soak up almost a whole day’s requirement of vitamin D. Vitamin D is important for our physical health in a variety of ways, and it also helps to alleviate anxiety and depression.

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Birdwatching Makes Friends

Studies have shown repeatedly that a strong network of friends will help you to stay happy and healthy. And if you take up bird-watching, you’ll probably discover many new friendships. An interest in birds brings together people from all walks of life and of all ages and backgrounds. Birding crosses all social and economic barriers and creates a sense of camaraderie that can help forge lasting friendships. Sharing our love of birds with new friends—and with those who have never tried birding—is beneficial for the birds, too! The more people we can get interested in birds and nature, the more support we build for conservation.

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Birding Keeps You Physically Active

A birding experience can be as low-key and relaxing as sitting in a comfy chair and watching the birds at your feeders. But it can also qualify as wonderful exercise. Simply going for a walk might be boring, but going for a walk to look for birds gives you a focus and a reason to keep going. And if you get serious about seeking new and different birds, you may find yourself hiking long distances and carrying all kinds of birding gear. Even if you stay close to home, bird feeding also requires some physical activity. This is especially true if, like us, you live in an area where you’ve got to shovel several inches of snow (or sometimes several feet!) from around your feeding station in winter. Use the birds in your backyard as inspiration to keep moving.

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Birdwatching Takes You Places

crowCourtesy Bill Caldwell
Valley of Fire state park in Nevada

Pursuing birds in their natural habitats is bound to shake us out of our normal routines and haunts. Watching the sun rise over a meadow, going out into the woods at night to look for owls, even going to the landfill to see a rare gull—all of these take us beyond ordinary experiences. For many birders, once they’ve gotten to know the birds in their area, there’s an insatiable curiosity about species elsewhere in the world. Birding can be the motivation to travel far and wide. For instance, birding expert Kenn Kaufman has watched birds on every continent. We’re not suggesting that everyone should go to that extreme, but visiting new and different places and exploring the bird life there is an exciting way to expand your knowledge of the world at large.

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Birding Feeds the Brain

Keeping our minds active and healthy is essential for our overall sense of well-being. The Alzheimer’s Association suggests that if we want to keep our brains healthy we need to keep learning new things. What better way to do that than by continuing to learn about birds? If you are new to bird-watching, just identifying the birds you see can be a challenging mental puzzle. If you are an experienced birder, you can still learn new things every day about the behavior of your local birds. Studies have shown that these kinds of mental exercises can help form new neural paths that can help fight back against diseases like Alzheimer’s, other forms of dementia and Parkinson’s.

Birdwatching Leads to New Experiences

A pair of Anna's hummingbird chicks greet their mom as she flies back to the nest.Courtesy Paul Marto
A pair of Anna’s hummingbird chicks greet their mom as she flies back to the nest.

Variety is the spice of life. This is an old saying, but it’s true. Lack of variety in our lives can lead to boredom and a general sense of fatigue. Adding variety can make us more energized and positive, giving us more to look forward to. And of course, in terms of variety, birds offer a dizzying array of colors, calls and behaviors. You can’t predict all the birds you’ll see while going out birding. On any given day, some of the expected birds will be nowhere to be seen while totally unexpected ones may pop up at any moment. So birding offers both a reassuring sense of the predictable and an exciting sense of the unpredictable, keeping us on our toes and alive to the possibilities.

An interest in birds can be the gateway to a world of discovery. Once you go outdoors and start looking around, it’s almost impossible to just see the birds. Before long, a beautiful butterfly, an intriguing mushroom or some unfamiliar turtle will distract you. It’s OK to be distracted—the birds won’t mind. As we’re fond of saying, when you learn more about nature, your view of the world becomes more three-dimensional. Some of our best friends are humans, but there are about a million other species of living things out there that are also worth knowing. And new experiences make life worth living!

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Heather Ray
Heather Ray is a registered dietitian and an award-winning journalist and editor currently residing in Des Moines, Iowa. She earned a master of science degree in nutrition and dietetics. In her leisure time, she enjoys baking, archery, kayaking, and hiking—hoping to someday trek all 2,175 miles of the Appalachian Trail.