Neighborhood walks and backyard lounging are the new normal as we isolate at home, and many people are finding that watching birds has a soothing effect and is helping them cope during this stressful time.
Editor’s note: We pause to acknowledge that not all people find comfort in bird watching because they are suspected based on the color of their skin. We urge readers to listen to accounts of racism in the outdoors, follow #birdingwhileblack, and strive to be make outdoor recreation welcoming and inclusive of all people.
KIRO Radio’s Gee Scott said he hadn’t really noticed wild birds but has recently become intrigued by them.
“I didn’t pay attention (to birds) one bit other than hear them in the morning,” said Scott, who co-hosts a weekday morning talk show. “Then my buddy got a bird feeder in his backyard, and I couldn’t believe how great it was to watch birds. It motivated me to pick up a bird feeder myself.”
Scott mentioned his new hobby on his Facebook page and was inundated with advice and tips.
“You really find out how many people are out there,” he said.
It’s estimated that between 50 and 60 million people list bird watching as a hobby.
Scott said he was surprised to find that he can watch birds at his feeder for more than two hours at a stretch.
“It’s so relaxing and so fun,” he said.
Studies have found that watching birds is beneficial for mental health. Research by the University of Exeter found that bird watching–whether in the country or in the city–can reduce levels of depression, anxiety and stress.
And a University of Washington study found that contact with nature has a positive impact on mood and sense of well-being.
“Bird watching is just one way to spend time focused outward,” said Wendy Walker of Seattle Audubon. “It can give your mind a chance to relax and slow down.”
Walker says many people get into bird watching because a family member or friend has an interest, but for others it starts with a “spark bird” that ignites excitement. Maybe as a child they found a robin’s nest, or they noticed a hummingbird visiting flowers in their yard, and that led them to learn more.
“Once that spark is set off, people start looking for information and this whole world of birds opens,” said Walker. “With over 10,000 species around the world, there is always something more to learn – but it starts with one.”
Walker says from there, some people will enjoy learning about the birds’ lives and the environment they live in and what they need to survive.
“For others, bird watching provides a challenge to find all the bird species they can and it becomes a fun game.
“Every person who watches birds has their own reasons,” said Walker.
Seattle nature photographer Joshua Maser says growing up in the Pacific Northwest and Southeast Alaska instilled in him an appreciation for the outdoors.
“Birding for me has become a logical progression for observing wildlife in its natural environment,” said Maser.
“The process of discovery is one of the most rewarding aspects,” he said. “With each new bird I observe and photograph, seeing their unique characteristics and behavior inspires a renewed sense of wonder for the world around us.”
“Having a humility and awareness towards nature and its inhabitants can help teach valuable lessons in empathy and patience,” said Maser.
Because birds inhabit most areas of the world, bird watching can be done almost anywhere by anyone.
“Birds are probably the one form of wildlife most people see daily. So, watching birds is as easy as becoming aware of what is already around you,” said Walker.
Spring is the perfect time to get into bird watching because the spring migration is heating up. Each year nearly a billion birds migrate along the Pacific Flyway, which stretches from the North Slope of Alaska to Central and South America.
Spring in the Northwest brings goldfinches, house finches, chickadees, song sparrows, Anna’s hummingbirds and juncos, to name a few.
Walker said one way to start bird watching is to spend 10 minutes one morning outside – in your own backyard, or on a balcony, or at the closest neighborhood park. Spend those 10 minutes listening and picking out the different bird sounds.
“If you do this for a few mornings, you will start to recognize some of the voices in your bird neighborhood,” she said. “For some people, this may lead to wanting to know more about the specific birds. For others, the goal may be to tune into bird sound to practice mindfulness. There are many ways to enjoy birds.”
Birds have varied diets that may include seeds, suet, nectar, and insects, and often they need different things during different seasons. What and how you choose to feed birds will have an impact on whether they benefit.
“But as good neighbors, people who choose to feed birds also accept the responsibility of diligently keeping feeders clean to avoid molds and to place them so that you avoid accidental harm, like protection from predators,” she said.
You can visit your local hardware store and pick up a feeder or check out Wild Birds Unlimited. They offer online resources, and many stores will deliver or ship products to your home.
Walker said one way to feed birds but avoid the issue of feeders is to create a bird-friendly habitat.
“Planting native plants that provide nectar or berries, eliminating pesticides (most birds need those bugs for protein), and leaving parts of a yard “messy” or creating a brush pile that shelters overwintering bugs and invertebrates also adds to the food available for birds,” she said.
“Ultimately, feeding birds creates opportunities for people to observe them regularly and closely; that familiarity can lead people to understand a bit about their lives and to care about protecting them.”
You’ll find a myriad of resources to help you get started with your new hobby. Many cities have a local Audubon chapter (find yours through Audubon Near You).
Seattle Audubon’s BirdWeb offers information on birds seen in Washington amd details about where and when to see specific species.