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Bird watching as a portal to wellness

In addition to being an accomplished bird watcher, Kelly-Sue O’Connor of Blenheim, Ontario has embraced the healing aspects of birds and nature. Photo courtesy of Kelly-Sue O’Connor

Last month, I went on some bird hikes in Essex County and Chatham-Kent that were led by Blenheim birder Kelly-Sue O’Connor. I was interested, of course, to gain some insights about shorebirds and other birds from her, and I was interested to compare notes on bird conservation issues too since she had been active with Bird Friendly Hamilton before moving to Chatham-Kent earlier this year. But I was equally intrigued to chat with her about birds and wellness.

Over the past years, I’ve chatted with lots of birders. Usually it’s about birds and birding hot spots, but sometimes the conversation has surprised me. On occasions, another birder has remarked on how they turned to birding in the face of a personal challenge. Maybe it was the death of a parent or the end of a relationship or a health challenge. So often, I have found these conversations to be memorable because they were surprisingly relatable.

Kelly-Sue has found birds and nature to be a balm. She has also found an online community that very deliberately embraces the wellness aspects of birds and she is contributing to that community. She hosts Birder Brain on a number of platforms including a website, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

While she brings a great depth of expertise to her birding, Kelly-Sue also likes to keep it simple. “I remind myself of why I go birding in the first place. Mindful birding helps you appreciate every moment and interaction with birds without the pressure. If you are spending time with birds you are doing it right. No need for the extra human-made expectations.”

Many of the birders who I’ve chatted with over the past decades bring an intensity along with their passion to their bird watching pursuits, and sometimes there will be an expression of profound frustration at having missed out on a target bird. FOMO – the fear of missing out on a bird that many others are posting – is another anxiety provoker for some birders. One of Kelly-Sue’s posts addresses these stressers. “It’s okay if you miss a target bird, misidentify a bird, have no interest in bird listing, prefer to bird alone, ask for bird ID help, or take a break from birding.”

There are some books that have linked birds and wellbeing. One that I enjoyed was Kyo Maclear’s Birds Art Life. This Toronto writer underlined the power of birds and nature to ground us as she documented a year of her bird observations.

In a 2021 issue of Psychology Today, Dr. Marlynn Wei wrote a piece titled “The Joys of Mindful Birdwatching” in which she suggested ways to enjoy birdwatching as a restorative and mindful experience. These included embracing bird watching as a practice of mindful observation, cultivating a sense of respect for nature. letting go of specific outcomes of the bird watching experience, and embracing the fleeting nature of bird watching.

The Ornitherapy website supports the practice of mindful birding. The word ornitherapy was first referenced in print in 1979 in the British Journal of Medicine. Dr. A.F. Cox of London (England) had documented the positive outcomes of his patients who had been watching birds. The website explains that “labeling or identifying birds is not the primary focus, but instead, the intention is slowing down and noticing, using birds as our guides.” Guiding principles of mindful birding are also described. They are “an awareness of being in the moment with the birds, an intention to turn our attention to birds and nature for self-care, being without judgment in order to allow an experience to be what it will be, and not be disappointed by what happens (or doesn’t), and an exploration of one’s curiosity, wonder, and openness to experiencing awe.”

Mindful birding has also been defined simply as slow birding. In any case, the birder’s intention is to be in nature quietly to engage with birds and nature. It brings to mind the practice of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.” Kelly-Sue even says that “on days when my mind is racing I go to the forest. I become part of the nature around me, try to go unnoticed and just watch the birds.”

The link between mental health and birds isn’t some woo-woo faux science issue. A broad range of peer-reviewed studies on the theme have been published. For example, in research led out of the University of Exeter, is was shown that watching birds near your home is good for your mental health.

In a huge 2021 pan-European study out of the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research and the University of Kiel, researchers showed that bird species richness is positively associated with life-satisfaction across Europe. The authors wrote “We found a relatively strong relationship, indicating that the effect of bird species richness on life-satisfaction may be of similar magnitude to that of income.”

None of this surprises Kelly-Sue. The importance of nature is so personal and important for her that she continues to support and explore the connections between mental health and birding one story at a time. Why would anyone want to take a pass on magical moments with birds and their power to enhance our lives?

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