Bird watching and mental health - Martin George

Bird watching and mental health - Martin George

Starling on bird feeder (c) Ben Hall/2020VISION

We’re living through an unusually stressful time, and many of the common coping mechanisms that people use – meeting with family, playing team sports, going out for a meal, booking a holiday – are no longer available to us. Fortunately the natural world is still there for us, not just during Mental Health Awareness Week (18-24 May), but always.

Martin George is a local birder and regular contributor to our own members magazine, here in his blog he describes how the natural world can help us all.

For many of us, going for a walk “to clear our heads” is an obvious way of coping with stress. Given the choice, most will choose a quieter route away from roads and busy streets, preferring to walk in parks, footpaths through green spaces or the countryside, or perhaps along a river or canal. Greenery helps (in enclosed spaces there’s evidence that just one plant in a pot can be calming) and if we see some wildlife, which in most settings will typically be birds, so much the better.

For most of our species’ history we have lived in close proximity to nature, mostly in low density rural settlements, a situation that has only changed in the fairly recent past. Before 1850 over half of the population of England and Wales lived in the countryside, and the 170 years since then are just a blink compared to the 200,00 to 300,000 years that our species has existed.

Martin Blog

The reason we like open views of the countryside with lots of flowers, clumps of trees and the sound of running water isn’t just one of aesthetics, it’s where we feel safe and where we instinctively know that we will be able to find food, water and shelter.

As hunter-gatherers our ancestors would have constantly been on the move, gleaning or hunting, and the hours worked by the bulk of the population until fairly recently, perhaps the 1970's, continued that trend. In essence we’re at our naturally most comfortable when we are outside, moving around and able to use our dominant sense – vision – to constantly scan our surroundings for threats and opportunities.

The modern world creates an unhappy, unhealthy environment for us of largely sedentary lifestyles; invisible threats such as financial worries; travel delays and looming meetings; working in an open plan office with large teams and our backs exposed. Stress hormones make us crave energy-rich food which is now readily available, but chronic stress combined with restricted opportunities to exercise can make us overweight, with all the attendant risks to our physical and mental health. Suddenly, going for a walk or some other form of exercise seems like a very obvious way to re-set ourselves.

Martin Blog

For those of us with an interest in wildlife there’s the added dimension of not just taking in our surroundings, but engaging in another very natural human behaviour: cataloguing. At it’s most basic that assigns whatever we see to one of three categories: Can it eat me? Can I eat it? Can it be ignored? I’m told that this process becomes very obvious, in a hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck sort of way, if you go for a walk in areas where large predators such as bears, lions or tigers may be present!

Beyond immediate threats to our safety, it’s nice to add layers to that basic cataloguing, starting with names. Detail is key, as it can add more layers of knowledge, and more layers of enjoyment. The great physicist Richard Feynman said “You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird... So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing — that's what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something"


Swallows in the rain

It's nice to enjoy the grace of a bird as it swoops past us. It’s nicer to know that the bird is a Swallow, but the real enjoyment starts when we know that Swallows are birds that travel the length of Africa to reach us and only share our skies for a few months before heading back to southern Africa again; that the bird we are watching is swooping so gracefully because it’s an aerial feeder catching insects to feed to its young, and that the chicks will be in an open nest that the bird has made from mud; or that the open nest affords no protection from rain or mud so has to be sited or sheltered in a sheltered place such as a cave or garage… The layers of enjoyment only increase.

When we are looking at our surroundings and taking in as much detail as possible we can become absorbed in the moment and temporarily forget about life’s worries. This taking notice, ideally using as many of our senses as possible, is a form of mindfulness, a recognised technique for improving our wellbeing. In fact it’s one of the The Five Ways to Wellbeing that were identified by the New Economics Foundation in 2008 and are now used by the NHS and mental health practitioners to improve the population’s mental health and wellbeing.

The Five Ways to Wellbeing are

· Connect

· Be Active

· Keep learning

· Help others

· Taking notice

It’s quite easy to include all five in a gentle walk from home or workplace.


It’s still possible within social distancing guidance. We can talk to family and friends by phone, video chat or social media about what we’ve seen, how it made us feel, how that compares with what they’ve seen and how they’ve been feeling. Obviously we can also connect with a walking companion who lives with us, and it can provide new opportunities for conversation and thoughts away from the home environment.

People and wildlife

Be Active

Light physical exercise is good for us in lots of ways, benefitting bone density and joint movement, increasing muscle tone, providing a useful boost of Vitamin D, maintaining the health of our heart and, crucially, it consistently scores highly for boosting our mood and increasing our ability to concentrate

Keep learning

About what you’re seeing, and its context. Now you know the name of that bird what else do you know? Is it a resident or a migrant? Is this its normal habitat or is it passing through? If it’s a migrant is it early, late, or just when you would expect to see it? What does it feed on, and what is it likely to be eating right now? There are hundreds more questions, and most animals and plants can provide a similar source of fascination.

Help others

You can share your sightings with one of the many recording schemes to add to our collective knowledge. Sadly some people are socially isolated by circumstances or by having to shield during the pandemic, but you may be able to help them – and yourself – by connecting with them through SWT’s Feed the Birds project, a befriending service for bird lovers that pairs volunteers with a suitable person in their local area. The project is still ongoing in a modified format and benefits both the supported person and the volunteer - you can find out more about it here.

Bird track

Bird track, the bird recording app which logs observations and contributes towards research.

Taking notice

Noting details of the way the clouds move over the horizon on one scale, or the texture of a lichen at another. We can also note the species present; their numbers; the weather conditions or vegetation types. That sort of mindfulness can be good for our mental health on its own, but we can combine Taking Notice with Helping Others by submitting records to a recording scheme such as BirdTrack, iSpot or one of the specialist county recording schemes listed by the Shropshire Ecological Data Network. [… ]

As a birder I am a regular contributor to BirdTrack and love the way that, over time. I can compare records and determine whether the Swallows really are late this year, or when we last heard a scarce local visitor such as Lesser Whitethroat in the area

Shelducks and chicks

Shelducks and chicks

Since the lockdown started I have made a point of walking from the house every day, noting the birds I see and adding the records to the national and county dataset via BirdTrack.

To my shame I discovered a flooded area viewable from a local track that must have been very impressive during the winter, and recorded birds in a number and variety I hadn’t thought possible within a ten-minute walk from home. Since my first walk in late March the “My Patch” display on the BirdTrack webpage tells me I’ve seen 65 species, which I know include Pintail, Wigeon, Gadwall, Shelduck, Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Curlew, Greenshank and Snipe, plus passing Yellow Wagtails and Wheatears and a resident flock of almost thirty Mute Swans.





It’s also been interesting to see how the landscape has changed, from bare soil to growing crop, or watching the oil seed rape gradually go from green to yellow and now back to green again. The blackthorn has flowered and gone; now the hawthorn blossom is slowly being replaced by elder flowers, and the foxgloves will soon be out. Observing all these changes gives me a connection to a world that is carrying on as normal, which provides a welcome sense of continuity and reassurance. The current worries that many of us have about our loved ones and our livelihoods are real and shouldn’t be diminished, but they’re easier to bear if we can get outside, or at least look outside, and remind ourselves that the world is still turning and we will, in time, move on from this to happier times again. Try it!

Martin George


Martin George