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Opinions & Observations: Why we all need a little #BirdTherapy

April 24, 2020 Sara Kross, PhD
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Part sport, part mindfulness, part meditation: birding is what many of us need right now. Birding can help us be together while we are alone.

About a year ago, I started an informal birding group along with some of the graduate students in our program at Columbia University. As academics, we knew about the benefits of spending time in nature for mental health; but as humans, we recognized the need just to be outside.

I think we are all feeling that primal instinct for the outdoors right now. In the face of fear, and of looming unknowns; we all ache to hear the rustle of leaves, to smell the earthiness of damp soil, and to watch the bustling life that we so often hurry to ignore. For these reasons, and so many others that you have to experience to understand, I think it’s time for everyone to take up birding.

Spring is the best time of year to start birding. Our parks and backyards are preparing for an onslaught of feathered migrants that have just started arriving, but right now they’re host to a number of our most charismatic, and easily identified, resident birds. Anyone can start birding, today, with no prior knowledge of birds. Here are four ways to start to experience your own bird therapy.

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

First, heed all guidelines for social distancing and follow any relevant local rules. Keep 6 feet away from people who aren’t in your household. On top of pandemic etiquette considerations, remember that you’re observing wildlife. Don’t yell at birds, don’t chase them; stay on trails and paths.

Second, start birding now. You don’t need any special equipment or training for it. Binoculars are useful, but not essential, and there are good binoculars in every price category. You also don’t need to specifically “go birding” to enjoy birding — you can bird while you walk your dog or go for a stroll down the street. Birds are everywhere, you just have to learn to see them.

Third, start with the common birds. Across the country, American Robins hop around grassy fields and chortle their bell-like calls: watch for an upright bird with a black head and a reddish potbelly. In trees, watch for Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays and black-and-white striped Downy Woodpeckers. Near waterways, you might find statuesque Great Blue Herons stalking their prey, while Mallards dabble and paddle and quack. If you’re around park edges or near buildings, you’ll probably spot gangs of House Sparrows (watch for the males’ black bibs) or glossy iridescent Starlings strutting through the grass. Even our city’s ubiquitous Pigeons come in a remarkable plethora of colors.

Fourth, use technology to your advantage. I always recommend that new birders use the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Merlin app, which is free, intuitive, and helps you identify species easily. There is an active birding community on twitter, and your local Audubon chapter can be a starting point to find out about birds in your region. There are lots of great NYC-area birders on twitter who you can follow for photos and news about birds in the area.

Birders often recognize that our activity is a practice in mindfulness: on twitter they use the hashtag #BirdTherapy. Birding eases you into living in the moment, it makes you aware of your surroundings in a way that few other activities can. It opens a window to a world that you’ve always been immersed in, but that you probably didn’t realize existed. Birds are active and inquisitive, they are constantly on the move and you’ll quickly learn that the opportunity to observe one is an ephemeral thrill. Around the country, we can all take a few moments to enjoy nature, to forget to worry, and to experience our own #BirdTherapy.

Sara Kross is an ornithologist and conservation biologist. She is the Director of the Master’s program in Ecology, Evolution & Environmental Biology at Columbia University.

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