Birdwatching is the self-care we all need

A flock of geese. Photo via Max Pixel.

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

There aren’t many good reasons to be wandering around behind Tydings Hall on a Tuesday afternoon, gazing at trees and staring up at the sky. But I found myself in that position last week, trying to get a look at a white-breasted nuthatch I’d heard on my way to class. As someone new to birdwatching, I’m still excited to spot even the most common birds, so I’ll stomach the concerned looks of passersby as I try to find a small bird in a tree.

My first foray into birding came at the end of high school, when a friend — whose skills and knowledge are, from my perspective, the stuff of birding dreams — introduced me to the hobby. I got a foot in the door thanks to his guidance. But by all measures, I’m still a novice. If you’re surprised to find there are different skill levels in birding, you likely haven’t grasped the vast extent of the field.

Professional ornithologists devote their careers to the scientific study of birds. This kind of dedication isn’t limited to academics: Expert birders take part in competitions like the annual Big Year, in which they take an entire year to find as many different species as possible. For some of these Big Years, they travel the globe. In other words, this is serious business for many people.

There are a countless number of birding books, a wide selection of equipment ranging from binoculars to whatever a water wiggler is and an active online community of bird enthusiasts. Earlier in my life, I would have thought all of this is absurd, but at this point I don’t know what I’d do without eBird.org.

Research has established the health benefits of an increased exposure to nature, and birding, of course, is much easier to do outdoors. One study found that just listening to birdsongs can help restore attention and lessen stress.

The idea of mindfulness — the psychological state of being focused and fully attentive to your experience in the present — has recently become more familiar thanks to the rise of practices such as meditation and yoga. Diverting all your attention to faint bird calls and methodically searching a wooded area for different birds can help to bring you to this coveted state. I’m not just speculating: Psychology professor David Standish has confirmed birdwatching is an exercise in mindfulness.

Health benefits aside, there’s also something valuable in being able to appreciate nature in such a simple way. Camping, backpacking, rock climbing — you name the outdoor activity, and I’ll refuse to do it. That said, I still feel like a regular outdoorsman when I can hear the difference between a titmouse and a chickadee.

For many, the environment can feel like an important yet distant topic. In most of our daily lives, the extent to which we appreciate the natural world is gleefully observing a squirrel eating pizza. But birding is a hobby that gives you a connection to nature regardless of where you live or how much you know.   

Zachary Jablow, opinion editor, is a sophomore economics and government and politics major. He can be reached at zachjablow@gmail.com.

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