One Wednesday, I crawled across the passenger seat to get in my car. I’d just struggled through a five-mile run. Now it was my mind’s turn to race: The driver’s side door needed fixing—I made a mental note to text my mechanic. When I got home, I needed to edit a video for one client, and email another, and I also needed to go to the grocery store. As I rolled down my window, my to-do list still growing in my head, I recognized a sound: “ZWINK! ZWINK!”
It was a bird call—a weaver, to be more specific, though I didn’t know which kind. They’re bright yellow birds with different variations of black masks and helmets, building ball-shaped nests from trees throughout East Africa. (I live in Nairobi, Kenya.) I searched and eventually found him. The car had stopped, and so had my mind. No grocery list, no to-do list, no admonishing myself for things undone—just a little yellow bird hanging from his nest, screaming his shrill call.
I was experiencing mindfulness. Cultivating mindfulness, or noticing what is happening in the present moment, has all kinds of benefits: If you’re mindful while you’re eating, paying attention to the taste sensations of your food, you can feel more satisfied and even lower your blood sugar. Being more mindful can make you more productive at work and better at collaborating. If you practice being mindful, it can change your body’s actual response to stress, reducing how much of the stress hormone cortisol is released.
Meditating is the method by which most people tend to try and attain this body-and-mind-improving state. But counting breaths, closing your eyes and concentrating, and other meditations are difficult and sometimes unpleasant—for me and for others. While some people may argue that struggling with meditation is part of the point, it’s also discouraging, and can make a mindfulness practice frustrating. And when something’s frustrating, you're less likely to set aside time to do it.
For me, that's where birds come in. This was also the case for David Standish, a writing professor at Northwestern University, though he didn’t know it was called “mindfulness” at the time. “I used to think it was one of the world’s dumbest ways to spend time, right in there with ice fishing and seeking political office,” he says. (Standish made this same birdwatching joke in my graduate school class a decade ago.) When he was assigned to write a story on birdwatching in 1980, however, he found that he was hooked—and mindful, though he didn't call it that. “Once I started doing it, I thought, wait a minute, there’s all these other ancillary rewards. I just sort of landed on [mindfulness] myself.”
In a piece written for Chicago magazine in the mid-1980s, Standish wrote that birdwatching had improved his observation skills as a reporter: “This dumb birdwatching has altered my focus from the usual safe middle distance. Paying attention to birds in the city lets you see more, and for me has spilled over into other things. Doing it gives you the habit of looking carefully, noticing details that never seemed to be there before.”
Kim Abson, a physician and skin cancer specialist at the Polyclinic in Seattle, says that birdwatching for two decades has made her more mindful in ways that make her a better doctor. “Birds are easily startled, taking flight at the smallest sound,” she says. “Similar things happen with [people] in the clinic. You must be patient and not interrupt their story. Being quiet and patient makes you a better doctor when you are able to let [them] go deeper into their story, you can better empathize with them and understand their health issues.”
David Creswell, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, says that even though it’s not meditation, watching birds like this does count as mindfulness. “A lot of times we think about mindfulness or mindfulness meditation as really going deep and knowing yourself," he says, "but really it’s about fostering awareness and open receptivity to your experience."
At Carnegie Mellon, Creswell studies how mindfulness training affects stress response and other mental and physical health outcomes. He says that when monks in a monastery pay attention to the sounds in the room where they are, that’s mindfulness, too, though not explicitly meditation. Same for watching birds. “You’re really having an explicit goal to attend to sounds. To really be attentive, that certainly counts as mindfulness,” he says.
Practicing mindfulness specifically through birdwatching can also help your health: In a study published last year in the journal BioScience, scientists from The University of Exeter in England found that when people experience more birds in their daily lives, their mental health improves. They also experienced reduced prevalence and severity of depression, anxiety, and stress. Previous research has found that listening to birdsong contributes to perceived attention restoration and stress recovery.
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“Mental health is hugely complex, and nature isn’t a silver bullet, but there’s increasing evidence that it can be an important tool—particularly for people in cities—to offset extra stressors," says Daniel Cox, a professor at the University of Exeter in the UK and the lead author of the study on vegetation and birds’ effects on mental health.
Some of the benefits, he says, are realized whether or not you’re paying attention to the flapping, chirping, and roosting of your feathered neighbors. “Most people don’t notice the birds around them. But they are seeing them subconsciously. They’re kind of flying across the edge of your vision. They still matter even if you’re not consciously focusing on them, but you gain more of the benefits by watching them.”
Creswell says that birdwatching becomes a true mindfulness practice when you actively look for birds, and he suspects it would have some of the same effects that the breathing practices he uses in his studies on stress response. "You’re building these skills of attention and equanimity," he says. "If that’s your sole mindfulness practice, I think that will spill over into how you deal with stress.”
But “actively paying attention” to birds doesn’t mean you have to become a binoculars-toting, Latin name-spouting super-birder. That's just one type of birdwatching, says Claire Thompson, author of The Art of Mindful Birdwatching. “All of that is really interesting. It’s essential for communication and science. But mindful birdwatching is watching them with your senses. You don’t need any knowledge. You don’t need to know the names of species."
Thompson is a naturalist who frequently leads mindful nature walks. Often, she encourages people to simply find something they like. “The whole practice of mindfulness is actually making a choice about what you’re paying attention to. [You can] pay attention to colors. I tune into songs more than anything—it comes more naturally.”
Thompson says tuning into the songs—or the birds’ colors or behavior, whichever you choose—can help provide further details that root you in the present. Since mindfulness is partly about "being" in the place you’re in, it helps enhance your mindful experience.
Both Standish and Abson have found that birds enhance their travel memories. Standish, for one, remembers the first bird he really noticed in 1980, and where he was. “I can look at a harlequin duck, and I remember I first saw that at Belmont Harbor [in Chicago],” he says.
What's more, most people don’t have to go anywhere to get these benefits—birds are ubiquitous, says John Rowden, director of community conservation for the Audubon Society. Birdwatchers establish what are called “sit spots” for themselves—places like their porch, backyard, or a spot in the park. When Rowden was an ornithology professor at Columbia University, he had students observe pigeons in the streets of New York. Pigeons, he adds, are each unique individuals who behave in different way; they're not just gray blobs. Each pigeon’s neck, for instance, has iridescent shades of purple, pink, and green.
Turning off your phone, or at least putting it away while you’re outdoors, is a simple way to increase your mindfulness of the bird life around you, Cox suggests. Besides the benefits you’ll get from nature, reducing screen time—even if it’s just for a short walk each day—might make you happier. Noticing the birds around you naturally puts you in a more meditative-like state, says Marla Morrisey, founder of the Mindful Birding project, which encourages ethical guidelines for birding festivals. Try and focus your attention on how they behave. “Watch how the birds are watching you. You don’t need to know what the species is to know if the bird notices you or not.”
Over time, you might find your backyard is more fruitful than you think: Standish’s Chicago story from the 1980s detailed the ever-changing ecology of his own back porch—and the 57 varieties he spotted there. Once a skeptical birdwatcher who thought it was one of the “world’s dumbest ways to spend time,” he now says it’s kind of therapeutic for him. "I find that I love it," he says, "and that it makes me feel peaceful and calm."
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