Seeing birds can help people de-stress

By Julia John

A flock of geese rests in a park framed by the skyline of Ottawa, Canada. ©David Mark

Could birds help keep us sane? Recent research into nature’s impact on mental health gives us reason to believe so.

The opportunity to see a higher number of birds outside is linked to less depression, anxiety and stress, according to a new paper in BioScience.

Researchers from the University of Exeter and the British Trust for Ornithology measured the population and species diversity of birds at morning and lunchtime in a variety of neighborhoods in three towns in southern England. Testing five different nature characteristics in the neighborhoods, they found afternoon bird abundance was positively correlated with less depression, anxiety and stress. Vegetation cover also had a positive correlation.

“One possibility is that the greatest benefits are provided by characteristics that are most visible during the day and so most likely to be experienced by people,” the researchers concluded. The research was part of a broader project on biodiversity and ecosystem services in urban regions.

Between May and June 2013, researchers collected mental health surveys from a representative sample of local residents, taking into account factors that might influence their experience with nature, including gender, age, education, income, personality and attitude toward the natural world.

The results showed that people who spent less time outside than usual in the previous week were more likely to feel depressed or anxious.

“We chose birds because they’re mobile, visible and relatively well-known,” said Daniel Cox, research fellow at the University of Exeter. “They’re components of nature people are more likely to notice in their daily lives.”

Seeing a greater number of species of birds did not appear to be correlated with less depression, he said.

“Species doesn’t matter as much as forming that connection to nature, that well-being feeling people get,” Cox said.

“Being able to regularly experience nature is important,” he said. “With the intense urban environments we have, nature allows you to unwind, focus and recover from directed-attention fatigue [mental exhaustion].”

Further studies are needed to understand why bird abundance and human mental well-being are positively associated, Cox said.

Julia John is a science writer at The Wildlife Society. Contact her at jjohn@wildlife.org with any questions or comments about her article.

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