Ruth Miller of The Biggest Twitch reveals how birdwatching is not just good for your health and well-being – it can foster international friendships, too
Ruth Miller on how birding is good for your health and well-being – and friendships!
There’s been a fair amount of research in recent months and years to show that birdwatching is good for you. Most of us who already watch birds have probably instinctively always known this, but now it has been officially recognised. Back in 2007, the RSPB commissioned a study into the subject by Dr William Bird (yes, that is his real name!), strategic health advisor to Natural England. Called ‘Natural Thinking’, Dr Bird’s report showed that engaging with the natural world has positive health benefits: it is good for our mental health and general well-being. Going out and looking at nature takes us out of our routine, it gives us something more interesting to focus on and it re-ignites the bond between us humans and other living beings. Even just looking at a natural landscape can help us to de-stress and recharge our flagging batteries. Our eyes can see the colour green in the spectrum most easily, so the less work our eyes have to do, the more we relax. In 2017 a study by the University of Exeter reinforced the connection between watching birds and good health. It found that looking out of your window at birds and greenery can make you feel more relaxed at home and at work, in a town or in the country. In fact, the more birds you see in the afternoon, the less stress you will feel, the perfect excuse to gaze out of the office window, if ever there was one!
Birdwatching’s health benefits
Well, for starters it gets you outside and moving. Walking is good exercise, it can boost those happy hormones, and while the average birdwatching walk isn’t hard aerobic exercise, anyone who has run for a special bird will tell you it definitely increases your heart rate. If you’re outside on a sunny day, you’re absorbing Vitamin D which is good for healthy bones, and even lifting your binoculars on a regular basis exercises your upper arm muscles. That’s my excuse for not going to the gym anyway. Birdwatching is good therapy, too. Like playing a musical instrument for pleasure, it’s an activity that needs some concentration, and it’s absorbing enough to make you forget your worries. If I’m busy scanning the bushes for the warbler that just disappeared into the vegetation, I can’t worry about any emails I need to write or the presentation I have to prepare. Watching birds holds all my attention and I forget everything else. But it goes further than that. Watching birds, especially when you share birds with other people, helps your ‘social health’ too by increasing your sense of community and connection. It’s true, the pleasure you feel from watching a bird is far greater if you share the moment with others. It’s good to go ‘wow!’ inside your head if you spot a Kingfisher perched on a branch, but it’s even better if you can point it out to someone else and both go ‘wow!’ together. I’ve found that wherever I am birdwatching, a pleasure shared is a
pleasure doubled. I’ve been walking on my local patch, the Great Orme’s Head in North Wales and watching the Fulmars (below left) sitting on the cliff ledges. These wonderful birds chuckle and bicker in their pairs and the volume of noise increases dramatically if another Fulmar swoops too close to them. But most summer visitors walking on the Orme have no idea of what’s going on above them, unaware they have a relative of the albatross just feet away from them. But, if I show them the birds through the telescope so they can see all the details of their dark eyes, tubenose bill and gentle expressions, I can transform their walk (and mine) for the better, simply by sharing that beauty.
Breaking language barriers
The same pleasure principle applies in other countries, too. Birds don’t have borders and sharing birdwatching experiences can break down any language barriers. In a remote part of Ethiopia, we pored over our field guide to check the identification of Scaly Babbler, and were approached by the village chief, curious to see what we were doing. Unable to communicate through words, we showed him our field guide. He immediately recognised the birds in the illustrations and smiling broadly, he showed us where to look. Our pleasure in seeing the bird was doubled by his amazed reaction to watching ‘his’ bird through our telescope; never before had he ever seen it in so much detail. A punctured tyre in north-east India saw us killing time in a small town well off the beaten birding track, but as we waited for the repair, we noticed an Oriental Honey Buzzard repeatedly swooping down to snatch honeycomb from some overhanging cliffs and eat the larvae within. Setting up our scope for a closer look, we brought the town to a complete halt. We were immediately surrounded by a crowd all wanting to see what we were looking at; idle passers-by, curious shopkeepers, even ladies in mid-hairdo at the next-door hairdressing salon came to look through the scope. They were amazed by the close-up view of birds they’d never noticed before and overwhelmed by the idea that we’d travel so far to look at their birds. It was a moment we’ll never forget, and hopefully we may have sown a birdwatching seed in their town that day, too. So, it’s official. If you’re ever asked why you’re gazing out of the office window, or looking up at a cliff, or staring deep into a bush, the answer is you’re looking after your health. And if you can share what you’re watching with somebody else, then you’re doing your health twice as much good!
The Biggest Twitch online: birdwatchingtrips.co.uk
We were immediately surrounded by a crowd all wanting to see what we were looking at; idle passers-by, curious shopkeepers, even ladies in mid-hairdo
Loch Na Keal on the Scottish Island of Mull Oriental Honey Buzzard, about to feed...