Bird Therapy by Joe Harkness

This post is the first in a series of posts about reading the 2020 Wainwright Prize longlist, full details here.

This book is a personal tale that looks at birdwatching as a form of therapy. The author talks about his anxiety, and OCD, and how birdwatching was a way to improve his mental health. However the book is less a self help guide and more a guide to how to birdwatch. The author discusses a number of different approaches to birdwatching and which he prefers. The book begins with the author setting the context for his use of ‘Bird Therapy’. That is is own anxiety, his OCD and workplace stress. This is then linked by the five ways to wellbeing:

  1. To connect
  2. To take notice
  3. To give
  4. To keep learning
  5. To be active.

The author states how well these five things can be provided through birdwatching. He asks ‘what was the first bird you really took notice of?’ He explains that nature and birdwatching can provide stability, an anchor to the present and provide grounding.

The author talks about taking more fo an interest in birdwatching and his Bird Therapy as the start of the next chapter of his life. He states “I started to recognise just how positive I felt when I was immersed in the world of birds. My worries seemed to fad into insignificance and when I was feeling stress, if I counteracted it with some time outside, watching them, it drifted off like birds do, in a stiff breeze. I became aware of some relief from certain symptoms – low mood and lack of motivation – and noted elation and what I would describe as ‘ultra-positivity’. Quite simply, I started to feel a lot better.” This is a form of ecotheropy, a range of regular and structured activities that take place outdoors and are beneficial to wellbeing.

When starting out watching birds the author recommends getting to know the birds in your own garden or any nearby outdoor space, and notice how they behave and interact. Develop a sense of ‘being’ whilst birdwatching, rather than overtly trying. Take time to notice the intricacies of feather patterns and markings. Reference is made to citizen science projects invovle birds – including the BTO Garden BirdWatch schsme and also the RSPB Garden Birdwatch.

One aspect Joe talks about is the concept of falling in love with his local area as an alternative to driving across the country to tick off particular species. He then goes on to say “consider finding yourself a local birdwatching patch. The consistency and security that visiting a regular patch provides can also help you connect with yourself and with nature”. He links this to the enjoyment of birdwatching for appreciation, and the natural enjoyment of birds, rather than the pressure of checking off birds on a list. This includes listening to natural sounds, accepting the whole soundscape, rather than becoming too focused on individual bird sounds. Visiting a regular patch allows you to tune into the daily, monthly, and seasonal rhythms of life.

Specific mention is made of birdwatching in the winter. Winter is frequently a difficult time for those who struggle with mental health – symptoms of depression can worsen during the winter months. Birds unite in winter, the more there are in a flock the more they can do – multiple eyes to look for predators, food, and shelter. In the winter birdwatchers are able to savour and enoy unforgetable moments and spectacles.

Following winter is spring and this is heralded by the first singnign chiffchaff of the year, as it returns in mid-March it acts as a portent of the vernal equinox. During the spring there is also birds passing through on migration known as ‘spring passage’. We can enjoy the chronological return of warblers, and get to know the order in which they arrive and embrace the marvel of their migratory journey. Keeping records is a way a of providing others with a window into our world. The compendiums of lists, notes, dates and times are so much more than just notebooks on nature.

The author explains that the act of learning about birds is a key part of the benefits of birdwatching referencing NHS guidance on wellbeing that lifelong learning is beneficial to boost confidence, self-esteem, build a sense of purpose, and help us connect with others. He also discusses the physical impacts of bird watching that it provides ways to keep both the mind and body active.

The author towards the conclusion of the book talks about how birdwatchers develop their own memory bank of how each bird looks and behaves, stating that in birdwatching this ‘feel’ for a bird has its own name ‘jizz’ – the general impression and character that distinguishes it from another species. The idea of recognising a bird’s jizz is innate to each observer’s perception of a bird. This is how experienced birdwatchers are able to identify a bird at a distance.

Key Takeaways

  • The benefit of watching a particular patch – not for the number of species but for watching the species that are there and also the seasonal change.
  • Feeding birds is an activity that can increase connection with nature and increase wellbeing.

This book linked with my own interest in birdwatching, I am much more interested in watching birds in my garden, local area, or incidentally rather than travelling to find specific birds (though I would like to see a Bittern).