Depressed? Go birding

By Samar Mahmoud, PhD | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published May 21, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Birdwatching is becoming an increasingly popular way to connect with nature. 

  • The popular outdoor activity positively impacts psychological well-being, extending beyond the benefit of simply being in nature. 

  • Birdwatching can increase concentration, reduce stress, alleviate symptoms of depression, and generally improve mood—plus, it is easily accessible for anyone, anywhere.

Spending time in nature has been linked to a variety of benefits, ranging from lower stress to improved cognition and memory.

Birdwatching, or birding, is one of the most common ways to connect with nature, and it has been shown to positively impact psychological well-being. 

An increasingly popular activity

According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, 96.3 million people engaged in birdwatching in 2022, with nearly 43 million people embarking on trips away from their homes to birdwatch—up from 18 million in 2011.[][] 

The growing popularity can be attributed to the fact that it is a relatively inexpensive and widely accessible hobby—for the most part, anyone anywhere can observe and appreciate birds and other wildlife.

In addition, while birding has typically been associated with the 55 to 64 age group, the development of applications that allow the identification of birds on mobile devices has made birdwatching more appealing and accessible to younger demographics.

Popularity of birding also soared during the COVID-19 pandemic, at a time when people were searching for a safe and mostly free outdoor activity.[][]

Mental health benefits

A study published in Scientific Reports sought to investigate the benefits of encountering birds in a real-world context.[] The study included 1,292 participants who used a smartphone-based application to self-report on their mental well-being in the context of seeing or hearing birds in their every-day life. The participants completed a total of 26,856 ecological momentary assessments between April 2018 and October 2021. 

Investigators found that the participants’ mental health was significantly better when seeing or hearing birds in comparison to times where birds were not heard or seen. The mental health improvements also applied to participants with depression. The positive effects on mental well-being were observed even after adjustments for confounding variables such as age, gender, ethnicity, education, and occupation were made.

The impact on mental health was more pronounced when participants were outside, suggesting that the link between birdwatching and mental health could be due to an overall positive effect of spending time in nature.

To account for this, the investigators modeled seeing trees and plants and seeing or hearing water as additional confounding variables. The results of the study were still significant, demonstrating that there is a specific benefit to watching birds on psychological well-being that extends beyond the benefit of being in nature.

“There is growing evidence on the mental health benefits of being around nature and we intuitively think that the presence of birdsong and birds would help lift our mood," said the lead author of the study.[] "However, there is little research that has actually investigated the impact of birds on mental health in real-time and in a real environment. By using the [smartphone] app we have for the first time showed the direct link between seeing or hearing birds and positive mood. We hope this evidence can demonstrate the importance of protecting and providing environments to encourage birds, not only for biodiversity but for our mental health.”

A 2024 article published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology reported on a study that evaluated the impact of a 30-minute weekly birdwatching walk on self-reported well-being.[] The participants were college students on the NC State University campus and were randomly assigned to control (no birdwatching walk) and treatment groups. The results supported previous work that showed that nature engagement, and birdwatching in particular, may increase mental well-being and decrease psychological distress.

Interestingly enough, if you’re unable to go out in nature, another study found that listening to a short audio clip of birdsong, just 6 minutes, also had mood-boosting benefits.[]

So, what is it about birds?

Charismatic fliers

Andrea Mechelli, PhD, a professor of early intervention in mental health at King’s College London and an author of the Scientific Reports study, hypothesized that multiple factors could explain why encountering birds is beneficial for psychological well-being.

In an interview with TIME, he argued that nature increases concentration by reducing mental fatigue and stress by lowering blood pressure, while reducing levels of stress-inducing hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine.[]

In addition, birds attract people to the outdoors, and being outdoors is well-documented to improve mood. 

Tina Philips, PhD, assistant director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Center for Engagement in Science and Nature, also spoke with TIME about the allure of birdwatching: “They can fly. They can do something that we can never do, outside of a plane, so there’s that fascination. There’s a lot about birds in terms of their charisma, their behavior, and their accessibility that makes them this perfect group of animals that people can really relate to and resonate with.”

What this means for you

Spending time in nature is well-documented to be beneficial for mental health. Recent work suggests that people may reap significant mental health benefits by birdwatching, an increasingly popular outdoor activity. Understanding the benefits of birdwatching, particularly if patients have expressed an interest in this activity, allows healthcare providers to engage in conversations about the health advantages of nature engagement. 

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