A blog with Dr Carly Butler.
We’re always on the lookout for new and simple ways to connect people with nature, for their own, but also nature’s wellbeing. As the days get colder and shorter many of us will be stocking up bird feeders in our gardens and outside spaces. Our generous provision of bird food is often motivated by a sense of compassion and care, helping birds survive as temperatures drop and natural food sources become harder to come by. For many, feeding birds is also a way of connecting with wildlife and experiencing the pleasure that comes from watching our garden visitors.
Last winter, a Masters student I was supervising ran a research study to see if a simple twist in the way we watch birds could enhance wellbeing and nature connection. The twist builds on an idea I had of focussing on the emotions birds bring. Thanks to promotion by the Self Isolating Bird Club and assistance from the Alpkit Foundation, 156 people took part in the study and they were randomly allocated to one of two groups. The first group (the ‘Count’ group) were asked to watch the birds in their garden for thirty minutes, identifying each species and counting how many individual birds of each species visited (similar to the RSPBs Big Garden Birdwatch). The other group (the ‘Joy’ group) also watched and identified birds in their garden, but instead of counting them they were asked to rate their feelings of joy on seeing each species. All participants filled out a survey before and after the activity, which measured their feelings of wellbeing, anxiety and connection to nature.
We’ll share the full results when the research is published, however the headline results showed that participants in both groups had improved wellbeing, decreased anxiety, and stronger connection to nature, but the decrease in anxiety was greatest for those in the ‘joy’ group whose anxiety levels dropped by over 20%. This suggests that paying attention to feelings of joy can enhance the psychological benefits gained from watching birds.
After the project we also took the opportunity to explore which species brought the most joy. Long-tailed Tits came out on top, followed by Robins and Goldfinches. The lowest joy ratings were given to Woodpigeons, followed by Magpies and Carrion Crows. The smaller birds brought 50% more joy than the larger birds. Indeed, we expected woodpigeons and corvids to get the lowest ratings as they are disliked by many. Interestingly, while some birds brought more joy than others, that didn’t appear to impact on the benefits – it seems it is the act of noticing emotional responses itself which leads to the improvements in anxiety.
Given the involvement of members of the Self-Isolating Bird Club, our sample was not representative of the general population as participants were already keen garden bird watchers and we found they had very high levels of nature connectedness to begin with. While this in itself tells us something about the beneficial impact of feeding birds, we’ve found in other interventions that impacts are greater amongst those with lower levels of nature connectedness. As such, we could expect much greater increases if people who weren’t already connected to their local birds took part in the activity. It’s be great to repeat this work with more people, and more birds!
Meanwhile the research offers evidence for the psychological benefits of watching birds, and suggests that taking part in citizen science projects like the Big Garden Birdwatch can bring about enhanced wellbeing and connection to nature. However, greater improvements in anxiety are gained by paying attention to the positive emotions experienced while watching birds.
This is a simple activity that anyone can do at home, or any outside space where birds are present: take the time to watch birds and notice how you feel when you see them. A structured activity involving joy-watching birds could be used in green prescription schemes, adopted by school and community groups, or used alongside ‘bird therapy’ stations in workplaces. As recent research has suggested bird feeding could have a negative impact on some bird species, care would be needed in designing such schemes. However, as bird feeding increases the nature connection that brings pro-nature behaviours, there’s a need to consider the wider picture.
Our research has shown consistently that noticing nature is a critical first step towards connecting to nature for improved wellbeing. Noticing our emotional responses to nature takes us further towards building a new relationship with it. We know that those who feel close to nature are more likely to take action to help it, so appreciating the joy of birds could lead to more planting for birds and insects, better feeder hygiene, and more eco-aware behaviour. So, next time you fill up your feeders, stop, watch, and – most importantly – enjoy the birds who come to feed.