Birding: A New Kind of Therapy

By Isabella Ferrentino – April 1, 2023

With birding, you not only get outside but get out of your head.

Birding is not only a calming pastime; it’s an outlet within the outdoors. The hobby forces people to be more cognitive of their surroundings, providing a natural form of therapy. A study from the University of Surrey even found that birds were the most noticeable source of restorative sounds in natural environments discussed by participants. 

Additionally, birding can be a form of ecotherapy. Amy Sugeno, a clinical ecotherapist, says she uses nature to heal. 

Woman birding.

Credit to Paloma Ortiz

“(Birds) are a very approachable way to interact with nature. Seeing something that can fly captures our interest,” Sugeno says. “The beauty of the colors and the songs connect us with that sense of awe.” 

However, birding can be an intimidating hobby to tackle. Birds are everywhere, and it can be overwhelming to identify all of them. Nonetheless, the accessibility to birds encourages learning everywhere. 

Nicole Netherton, executive director of Austin’s Travis Audubon Society, has taken several sparrow classes and admits she still struggles to identify them. Birding can mean different things to different people; it can be a travel opportunity or people can find peace in making a list or simply enjoying a bird’s presence. 

“Some people thrive on learning attention to detail, making lists and traveling to see birds,” Netherton says. “You can make (birding) whatever you want. People should do whatever they find joy and relaxation in.” 

Birding improves mental health not only because of the relaxation and connection to nature it brings; it also provides the space for people of different backgrounds to partake in the activity. 

Credit to Lori Malloy

Communities in Austin that practice birding continue to grow to be an inclusive environment to all populations, one of these populations being those who are physically disabled. After 20 years of birding in a wheelchair, Virginia Rose never saw other people with disabilities birding and founded Birdability in 2018. Birdability’s mission is to introduce people with disabilities to birding, to ensure birding sites are accessible and that birding communities are inclusive.   

“It’s vital for mental health to combat the isolation that comes with being disabled. They’re isolated by virtue of their disability,” Rose says. “They certainly are not inclined to go out and into nature by themselves with so much uncertainty about whether or not the site is accessible.” 

By creating an inclusive environment, more people are able to experience the mental health benefits of birding. Rose says birding empowers individuals.

“The empowerment of being a birder and being out alone or with people makes you a stronger person; (it) makes you more confident,” Rose says. “It brings out all the things you can do.”

Woman birding outside.

Courtesy of Nicole Netherton

Great places to start birding in Austin include the Hornsby Bend Bird Observatory, Travis Audubon free bird walks, neighborhoods, local parks and even outside your own window. Lucky for us, Texas is located right in the middle of the Central Flyway, which is the ideal location for birding, especially during peak migration season from March to May.

Ultimately, Sugeno says birding enables us to recognize how essential nature is to humans.

“(Birding) is a little reminder of how important nature is to us, even if that’s not what necessarily crosses our mind,” Sugeno says. “All we have to do is open our eyes (and) stop, and it can make a big difference in our happiness and quality of life.”

Just as birds are constantly changing with the seasons and rhythms of life, those who partake in birding can ground themselves in the natural flow of it — something that can be soothing for the soul. Rose says birding brings out the raw experience of listening and seeing.

“When you’re birding, you are listening, really listening; you are seeing, really seeing, and you are completely immersed in the moment,” Rose says. “That is the answer to anxiety.”


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