Birdwatching is one of the fastest-growing hobbies around. Millions of people enjoy heading outside to look for feathery friends, whatever the weather.
There’s something hugely enjoyable about birding and, when asked about the benefits of birdwatching, most people will suggest the physical and social benefits. Recent scientific evidence however suggests that there are huge mental benefits to birdwatching whether alone or with friends.
What science has to say about the benefits of birdwatching
It’s pretty well known that exposure to nature and the outdoors has a multitude of benefits. , conducted by Dr Susanne Preston, concluded that ‘nature play’ for children and young adults had massive benefits for their mental and physical health. She said that “fresh air and sunlight have the largest benefits.”
She concluded that increased exposure to natural sunlight decreases incidences of seasonal affective disorder. This is, in part, due to the skin’s response to sunlight and vitamin D which leads to a heightened mood. Preston also notes that outdoor activity like birdwatching decreases mental illness, depression and anxiety and increases peoples positive emotions and even their self-esteem!
Researchers at Oregon University collated information from five different studies which essentially asked the question – does outdoor recreational activity make you happier? They found that outdoor activities are associated with feelings of wellbeing and life satisfaction. That means that by just being outside you are improving, not only your physical wellbeing by moving around, but also your mental health.
The really remarkable thing about this particular study is that they found these results were the same, regardless of other variables like age, gender, income, education, physical fitness or knowledge of the outdoors. The latter is particularly exciting for us at BIRDA because it means that we can all enjoy birding (and reap the benefits) whether we’re a fledgling birder or an expert!
It’s not just watching birds that can improve our mental health- what about bird song? A study from the found that the sounds of birdsong had perceived stress recovery and attention restoration. This is perhaps the reason we might listen to birdsong during a particularly stressful study period.
We’ll try not to get too bogged down in statistics but showed that 3.6% of 10-14 year olds and 4.6% of 19-15 year olds experience an anxiety disorder. WHO also showed that depression occurs in 1.1% of 10-14 year olds and 2.8% of 15-19 year olds.
These figures are a little troubling and showcase exactly what young people are up against. With rising rates of mental health disorders, particularly depression in young people, getting out into nature is perhaps the easiest way to improve our mental health.
Getting away from screens
Our modern lives are generally run by screens. According to a the average screen time in the UK is roughly five hours a day! There is increasing pressure, particularly with younger people to engage digitally rather than physically. Getting outside reaping the benefits of birdwatching is a fantastic way to improve mental and physical health. We’ve already discussed the physiological benefit of sunlight and movement, but what about our cognitive ability?
When we are birdwatching with friends we are inevitably talking. This discussion of our surroundings inevitably brings us closer to those we share the experience with, forcing us to be better at communicating and to take note of our surroundings. In a world where we are confined to short videos, tiny pictures and 280 character limits, the big wide world offers a chance to explore ourselves mentally whilst exploring the environment physically.
Connecting with Family and Friends
Birdwatching is a fast growing hobby, particularly after COVID-19. People are realising that sharing the experience of birding with others is hugely enjoyable. Studies by show that men in particular communicate best when doing activities. Birding is a fantastic way to connect with our friends and families without having to sit down over coffee (although this could be a great way of birding too!).
Of course, a huge bonus of birdwatching as a hobby is that it is year round! No two trips to a nature reserve will be the same; with different migratory and resident birds, different weather, changes to the environment through flooding or drought. Birdwatching can act as a tool to teach children all about the world they live in, whilst also getting them outside and looking for new birds!
Time for calm
Birdwatching is a fairly focused hobby and the benefits of birdwatching come in many forms. If you’re not paying attention then you run the risk of missing that crucial moment. This is very similar to the practices of mindfulness and meditation – focusing on one thing, such as breathing or environmental sounds, to remove distraction. No doubt many of us have spent an afternoon in a bird hide and totally lost track of time. It is, undoubtedly, one of the most relaxing ways to spend an afternoon.
A study published in Bioscience in 2017 gave some exciting results. It found that, yes, birdwatching improved mental and physical health – with a reduction in anxiety, depression and stress; but it also concluded that birders didn’t even need to interact with the birds. Participants could significantly improve their mental health by just watching birds. Perhaps by distracting our brains from the hustle and bustle of everyday life by observing natural wildlife behaviour, we forget our worries and concerns and see the wider beauty of the world?
Connecting with nature
One of the ways that outdoor learning is beneficial, particularly for young people, is the multi-sensory aspect. Much of our modern world is confined to sight and sound but when birding, we are forced to connect with our world in a much more multi-faceted way. We can smell the woods we’re in, hear and see the birds, and perhaps even touch the trees we’re exploring – maybe don’t start tasting things yet though!
Birding isn’t always easy. Trying to find that illusive Kingfisher or hiding in wait for the Lapwings to land can be hard work. Physically moving around in search of wildlife has huge benefits for our health as we’ve already discussed. do at least 150 minutes of moderate activity per week and what better way to get those minutes than birding. helps our body move oxygen around our bodies more efficiently, helps us burn calories and lowers cholesterol. Who knows, perhaps all that excitement of seeing the Hoopoe can actually help us live healthier!
Birdwatching takes you places
Once you’ve exhausted the birds in your garden you may find that you have a desire to find new birds further afield. It might be that you’ll venture down to your nearest woods, or to the coast or just out at night to look for Owls. Regardless, you’ll inevitably be pushed out of your normal routines and locations. If you are in the USA you might want to have a look at our Top 10 Birdwatching Parks guide.
Avid birders will tell you that birdwatching takes you places. Not all birds are easy to find! RSPB Bempton will show you Gannets while RSPB Insh marshes will give you incredible views of Goldeneye. Birding expert, Kenn Kaufman has watched birds on every continent! Now, we’re not suggesting you all go to these lengths but in order to find that specific bird you’re after you will have to travel. It could be a nature reserve or it could be a back garden, there is different wildlife everywhere and mapping out your travels is a great way of telling your own birding story to others.
Birdwatching leads to new experiences
The old adage “variety is the spice of life” can certainly be applied to birdwatching. A lack of variety can lead to the monotonous boredom which we all, at some time, have fallen prey to. In birdwatching, there is always more to learn and more to experience. When the small, regular visitors to the bird feeders are known, we can learn what their calls sound like, what their nests look like or how and when they feed. The first level is to recognise the species but there is so much more to each and with each passing venture into the outdoors we inevitably create new memories and new experiences.
An important benefit of birdwatching is - it provides moments of awe
If I may be so self-indulgent as to tell a short story at the end of this article. I was visiting a quiet spot in the Cairngorms with a friend once, on the lookout for Ptarmigan. We had been walking for a couple of hours and were more than a little damp and bedraggled. All of a sudden he shushed me and pointed up. Above us, two Golden Eagles circled, a juvenile and a male on the hunt. We sat in the heather for some time, just watching them. The juvenile even landed on the crag opposite! On our walk back to the cars, we couldn’t stop talking about it and we shared a number of texts afterwards trying to ID the ring number we had spotted too.
These moments of awe are what make birdwatching so much fun and so irresistibly addictive.
If you are just getting into birding and you are unsure how to start birdwatching use our quick guide to get you out the door quickly.
It doesn’t matter if you are a newbie or expert birdwatcher, as you collect bird sightings, awe-inspiring moment and time outdoors, be sure to keep track of all the places you’ve been, the amount of time you’ve spent in nature and the birds you’ve spotted with the free Birda app. It’s totally free and connects you with a community of like-minded folks. Read about all of Birda’s features here. Or, if you’re looking to learn more, be sure to check out our article on the best binoculars for birdwatching.