Updated - The way birds help our mental health and well being


In 1984, Edward Wilson, a biologist from Harvard, developed the theory of Biophilia. The theory of "Biophilia" suggests that humans possess an innate tendency to seek out connections with nature and other forms of life, like birds. He believed that our love of nature helped sustain life.

One thing you don’t often hear too much about; is the benefits that birds can bring to those suffering from such things as grief, loss, stress, anxiety and depression.

Studies were completed this year by the University of Exeter, The British Trust for Ornithology and the University of Queensland. They found that in 10,000 people they studied, of varying ages, races and incomes; their mental health was benefited from watching birds, while being out in nature. The levels of cortisol from stress were reduced as were the heart rates in people who watched birds outdoors. Blood pressure decreased as did anger, fear, anxiety and muscle tension. It showed that looking at birds not only reduced inflammation and stress but also increased short term memory and the clarity of thinking. The studies showed that they restore our mental energy and even help to increase our vision, focus, concentration, problem solving abilities, productivity and happiness. Birdwatching helped decrease people's pain and discomfort from emotional and physical illness by providing a welcome distraction. People felt they had more meaning when they got outside and their mood became more positive.

It is a well known fact that those who isolate themselves indoors will suffer more depression than those who get outside and have the sun hit their face with Vitamin D and interact with others. However, birds specifically bring people a calming effect of dopamine. Being out in nature with the birds allows the prefrontal cortex in the brain to rest. The study found that it wasn’t any rare bird or unusual bird that brought the greatest effect on people, it was the common songbirds like Chickadees,  that impacted people the most. These are the  familiar birds that are safe and calming and reassuring to so many. The greater the number of birds the people saw, the greater their stress levels, worries and sadness were reduced. Office workers who had windows to look outside and see birds or worked outdoors had a greater level of happiness as well. The flight-or-fright and rest-digest autonomic nervous systems (that  help with body and brain relaxtion) are controlled when out watching birds in nature.

For most people in the study they were unable to identify the birds but it was the simple interaction with the birds as they moved, sang or fed on their hand that stimulated the people to be happier.

Birds may be just what the doctor ordered and the more birds around, the happier people seem to be. That is why it is imperative to keep our city parks and green spaces, so that birds can frequent these urban areas. It is in these urban areas where people tend to be more stressed by work and other life stressors.  If we reduce urban sprawl and development and stop paving over our green spaces; we can have an increase in natural ways to help people who are really suffering. Nature helps to bring people back to the present moment and slow down from their busy lives even if momentarily. This would be a good thing to bring up at council meetings and/or in letters to MLAs and MPs, when developers and cities want to develop natural areas. We have to continuously push for ways for cities to integrate nature into our urban communities. In South Korea, they have 3 healing forests and 34 are in the works (see here and here). In Vancouver, Canada the practice of Forest Bathing is now the rage.

The book "Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural, and Evolutionary Investigations" by Peter Kahn and Stephen Kellert, emphasize the importance of animals and nature. This is especially true with children in early and middle childhood, when they develop a nurturing relationship with an animal. The increased benefits to the child are tenfold and they tend to be happier and better connected to nature later in life. The same book reports on the help that animals and nature can provide to children with autistic-spectrum disorders.

Children who are bullied in school and suffer from depression seem to also benefit from being out in nature and seeing birds. Studies have shown it also helps children with ADHD and as I said earlier, Autism spectrum disorders. Studies showed that getting outside helped improved the children's eyesight and reduced eye strain since they are off their iPads, TV screens, phones, computer and video games. It reduced the kids's stress, fear and fatigue levels, got them exercising, increased creative thinking, stimulated them and taught them responsibility. It also built up their confidence and self esteem, increased compassion and most importantly made them happier. I notice this in my young birders as well.

As per a 2010 study from McGill University published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology; getting out in nature for as little as 20 mins, stimulates our endorphins and makes us feel more alive, energetic and well. Nature helps us stay out of ruminating negative thoughts which helps depression and increases serotonin and allows our brains to recharge. The study showed that people who get out in nature have better immune systems to prevent infection and have a 12% lower mortality rate. This was especially noted in regards to a reduced risk of death from cancer, lung disease and kidney disease.

In a similar fashion, the memories we create from birding trips and twitches can trigger and recount much happiness to our brains and increase our well being.

Birds are sentient creatures, they have conscious thoughts, it is proven they feel pain and loss and grief just as us humans do.  They filmed an Emperor Penguin grieving over the loss of her dead chick and have done the same in ducks; where a duck lost its mate and was so depressed and exhibited signs of major depressive disorder and then died shortly after. Perhaps this is why some of us feel, such a deep connection to birds and animals in general. They resemble our familial relationships.

When you hear that familiar and pleasing song of a Chickadee for example, in your yard, it can make a sad person smile again. They give us a sense of freedom and help us to see how beautiful the world is that we live in. They help us to disconnect from the virtual world and experience the real world.

Birds help us in so many ways. It is time for us to not forget all they have and continue to do for our planet and our well being. Jane Alexander said “Birds remind us that there are angels” and she couldn’t have been more right. The truth is whatever we do, that will help the birds and is good for their survival is in turn good for us. We are all connected. Seeing a beautiful bright bird and hearing it sing can brighten up our mood, as a sensory effect. When spouses have lost their significant other, studies showed that getting out with a distracting hobby, that brought them joy, helped to ease their worried and heartbroken minds.

Birds have such a positive aspect on our lives and allow us to connect with nature. Birds bring good social contacts and friends into our lives, some that touch our lives forever. They get us out exercising and maintaining our physical health. They help us to be active in social change and environmental issues, such as climate change, volunteer work and conservation etc. Without the birds, the planet would be a dreary sad place. 1200 species of birds are facing extinction in the next 100 years and most from severe habitat loss. Since they help us so much, we should help them, even if it is for selfish reasons. We may not realize, just how deep an impact they have on our mental well being.

Birds enrich our lives in so many diverse ways, there is no two ways about it. Their songs, flight patterns and feather colours brighten up the most urban and ugly landscapes. They help us to care about something other than ourselves, especially if we feed the birds by keeping their feeders healthy and filled. They keep us interested and intrigued when observing their unique behaviors. We have learned and continue to learn so much from them and that will never stop.

Avians and animals in general, can stir up great emotions in people. They can cause us to cry and smile and laugh.  It can be a moving, magical and even spiritual experience to watch birds. They make us more grateful for our lives and to see such mesmerizing sights. They make people want to be better versions of themselves and even pursue careers to study and conserve them and the natural world. If you are spiritual or religious person, depending on your faith, you may see the presence of God in them. They enhance our imagination and creativity and make us more productive, especially for those suffering from sadness, illness or loss. They are intrinsically linked to us, since we first shared the planet with them. The First Nations recognized the wisdom and spiritual significance of birds early on. For this reason, they knew how important it was to maintain that relationship and connectivity to nature through veneration.

Birds are such an important part of our lives and we should be grateful for all the ways they help us. They inspire us to do better in life and in turn we gain strength and comfort from them, when we are downtrodden. Poets, painters and songwriters and musicians frequently include birds in their various art forms, since they bring a sense of beauty and peace to the work.

A Russian prisoner of war (POW) during WWII (captured by the Nazis) gave my grandfather in Norway a small bird he carved out of wood. He passed the bird to him since my grandfather worked in the underground (resistance movement) and  had been kind to him, My grandfather provided him with some dried venison and bread my grandmother baked, that he sneaked in. My grandmother baked lots of bread for POWs that she would smuggle to them at German Hospitals. I'll never know exactly how this bird transfer happened in such a dangerous situation, neither does my father. My father said the less you knew at the time the better. The operations were very clandestine. I am sure my grandfather didn't want to tell his kids anything that could put them in danger, since he worked for the resistance. German Soldiers were everywhere and a little kid may say the wrong thing. I do know though that this was an outdoor German run labour camp in Kristiansand, where people could walk up fairly close to the barbed wire fence. My father remembers going there with his mother and watching them work. I am proud of my grandfather for his bravery and all he did during the war to bring down the Nazis and to help Jews get safely to Sweden. He was found out by the Gestapo (Nazi secret state police) in 1944 and had to flee to neutral Sweden and then to England to join the resistance movement there. Had he not made it to Sweden, which he did by skis, he would have been killed. I never met him, as he unfortunately died before I was born and when my father was still a child.  These prisoner of war work camps were as you know horrendous places, where people were subjected to barbaric slave labor, seldom got fed and were treated worse than dogs, abused, tortured and killed. 500 of these camps were in Norway in WWII. Both parties could have been killed I am sure for such an act of transfer. My dad inherited the bird and still has the bird to this day. I can only assume the prisoner carved a bird because it symbolized hope and freedom to him. Birds symbolize freedom to so many, as in Maya Angelou's famous poem "I know why the caged bird sings".

My grandfather never knew what happened to this man,  if he ever got out or not. Many died in these camps.The Nazis viewed Slavs, just as the Jewish people, as racially beneath them and not part of the aryan race. More Russian POWs died in Norway during WWII than Norwegians. They were treated worse than Norwegian, British, Canadian and American POWs.  I sure hope the man gained his freedom... freedom from all that pain and sadness in the horrible confinement he was in. 

A bird carved for my grandad by a Russian POW in the 1940's in Kristiansand, NO - Photo: Melissa Hafting

If you see this photo at this link (scroll down to the bottom of the page) here . There is a bird carved for another Norwegian by a Russian POW which is on display at this museum. You can see it looks almost identical to the one my father has.

Birds give us hope to keep on fighting in the most trying of times, like the example of the prisoner. They help us no matter what ails us emotionally or physically. Birds were playing a role in preventative healthcare and spreading natural dopamine, reducing cortisol, increasing seratonin and pumping endorphins into us and we may never have recognized it. Therefore, the birds never got the credit they deserved, they are much more than just pretty things to look at and listen to.

It is critical when we live in such urban, computer dependent areas, to find daily ways to connect with the outdoor world, the presence of nature and the birds therein. We are becoming more and more disconnected from nature in our daily lives. If we make it a priority to get outdoors and look at birds. It will help us to flourish mentally and physically.

A quote by Carl Schreiner pretty much sums up the effect of birds on our psyche:

“When life becomes heavy and worries pull me down like gravity, I simply look up and suddenly there, in the weightless free air, soaring like kites, flitting from branch to branch, unencumbered, my friends the birds release my soul and I am again free.”

Birds expect nothing from us when we are out looking at them. They don't want or need our thanks. We don't have to put on airs or try to impress anyone, we can just be one with the birds that we are admiring. Nature never judges us. It is a constant, it is always there if we are feeling joyful or downright heartbroken. It is that consistency that helps us be fed mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
 
If you’re feeling disconnected, stressed, or sad, get out in nature and look at the birds, you will be surprised how much it does for your well being.

At the end of the day, we go out to look at birds in nature, not because of what science says but because of how it makes us feel.

Birds Matter, they enrich our lives, let’s never forget it.





Comments

  1. Wow great post and I can totally relate, health wise, and when i do force myself to get out there I notice the benefits right away, and for the days I can't our Yardbirds take over.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Pat! Yes getting out in our backyards is just as good! Sometimes it's nice to have nature come to us :).

      Delete
  2. Interesting read. My autistic grandson has shown zero interest in wildlife but he does like hiking and puddle jumping. I'm going to take him birding and see if he is more receptive this year.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good luck Eric I hope that is helps him just to get out and jump in those puddles! keep me updated.

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  3. great post mel was moved

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