Birdwatching in Animal Assisted Therapy
Sara Flynn © 18 March 2019
Caladrius Project www.caladriusproject.com
As pages are not numbered like in the PDF file, please feel free to locate the different topics using the ‘keywords’ below:
- Introduction / AAH
- Existing Studies
- Benefits of Birdwatching
- Research Report
- Suggested Reading and Resources
This study stems from both personal experience and years of research into the benefits of the connection between humans and Nature.
This work is written from the point of view of a qualified Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) facilitator and conservationist wanting to reach both other facilitators and professionals in the care and educational sectors.
The research and opportunities offered here are specific to the area of Birdwatching and its effects on anyone struggling with anxiety and depression. It is also aimed at younger generations to develop their interest in Nature and positively affect them and subsequently, the environment they will grow up in.
The first part of this research introduces AAT, lists existing studies, and offers an overview on the benefits of Birdwatching. The second part presents the results of surveys specifically conducted for this paper, providing hard data before moving on to testimonials and the practical section. Suggested reading and resources are added at the end.
Animal Assisted Therapy refers to the complementary treatment whereby people are helped through animals in improving at a cognitive, physical or emotional level. Various animals partake in structured and supervised activities, specifically planned for each individual over a series of sessions. Qualified facilitators work together with other specialists (psychologists, teachers, physiotherapists, animal handlers) to collect data, measure advancement and tailor activities accordingly.
Requirements change greatly based on every client, and for this reason, a particular therapy animal will be recommended. Each species offers different benefits which will match the individual’s needs, providing them with an efficient approach. Due to this, there are specialised branches within AAT, such as the growing EATL (Equine Assisted Therapy and Learning) among others.
The presence of birds as therapy animals has proved to be a successful addition in supervised and sometimes specifically built environments. Parrots are often addressed as Emotional Support Animals within Animal Assisted Intervention, and described as empathic birds. It has been documented that dementia patients have spoken again following visits from a therapy parrot (Gifted Wings Ministry). Their ability to talk affects humans’ response, as a more direct connection is triggered by an animal who can use our language. One bi-polar man has found great support from his parrot, as the bird learnt to verbally induce relaxation when sensing his guardian’s upcoming fits of rage (Marcela De Vivo). PTSD subjects and at-risk youth also find relief when rehabilitating birds; here a symbiotic relationship often takes shape, as both animal and human have experienced trauma.
In his book The Wonder of Birds, Jim Robbins devotes a whole chapter on “Birds as Social Workers”. Among other interesting examples, Robbins reports how the reintroduction of bald eagles in one of the most violent areas in the US has helped young offenders find a direction in life. Kinship is formed as young men and women find similarities between their perilous existence and that of the eagles, who also embody freedom, continuation, adaptation and make youth feel part of something bigger. Young people assist birds return to the wild, and birds help young people reintegrate in society.
I researched further into the possibility of avian support beyond supervised environments. The following chapter is an introduction to what I named “Avian Assisted Healing” (AAH), in relation to Birdwatching as a tool to relieve anxiety and depression.
The University of Exeter, the University of Queensland, BTO and Colorado State University (Animal-Assisted Therapy in Specialised Settings, Granger & Kogan) have all run studies on the presence of nature and birds on people’s mental health. A total of 260 subjects of different age, ethnicity and background were asked to complete a short version of the Depression, Anxiety and Stress scale. Calculations were based on the number of birds the subjects could see twice a day, mornings and afternoons. The findings showed how increased chances to see a larger number of birds resulted in lower levels of anxiety and depression and improved immunity. By increasing nature by 20 percent, researchers found that depression decreased by 11 percent and anxiety by 17 percent (H. Watcher).
Benefits of Birdwatching
What follows are the beneficial aspects of Birding, a list I compiled to highlight the possible effects of AAH on both mental and physical health.
Spending more time outdoors improves stamina, strengthens the immune system, offers a break from a heavily technological world, enriches lungs and brain with fresh air. The mind is stimulated by the surroundings, curiosity is rekindled by everything one comes across. When depression and anxiety have caused isolation, making it impossible to enjoy social spaces, nature can be a step towards reintegration in the outside world. Interests are also affected during times of depression, and the outdoors and birds’ activity may re-ignite inquisitiveness. Birdwatching also gives the chance to spot other wildlife and feel whole with the world.
In cases where being outdoors is not possible, for any number of reasons, Birding can still be carried out through a window. This makes it possible for hospital patients, office and line workers, students etc. to still avail of a Birding break, as long as the activity is planned by the establishment so that everyone has the chance to stay connected to Nature.
Birding sharpens the senses. Often, birds can be heard before they can be seen. As the hearing adapts to detect songs and calls, so will one’s sight (helped by binoculars) and the agility to follow birds in flight.
In cases where any of the senses is impaired, one will still be able to enjoy either the sight of birds or their sounds. By focusing one’s attention on nature, one may be distracted from negative thoughts; also, it’s been proved that observing animals improves the mood and increases well-being hormones in the brain.
Patience and silence are qualities often required in Birdwatching. Sitting in nature for some relevant time is as beneficial as walking through it. It quietens the mind, reconnecting one to the outside world. This practice often leads to rediscover parts of oneself that may have been forgotten, and it also brings about new ideas. It’s the nearest activity to meditation, and it helps taking in more and more details, giving the opportunity to observe behaviour in depth. A quiet mind is another step towards healing, as it re-shapes while watching life unfold.
Depression and anxiety are often accompanied by isolation, either voluntary or not. Simple daily chores may become impossible to complete, and social gatherings of any type may be difficult to face. Birding can be done individually, with a trusted person, and then increasingly with a wider group of people. One may start Birdwatching in one’s garden to later expand the hobby to farther locations, like parks or nature reserves where one may feel comfortable. As one’s state of mind improves, one may try and visit birders’ online forums, and eventually join a Birding club. One may also volunteer or be involved in conservation, which would bring positive results to both person and environment. The benefit of Birdwatching is that it can be shared with wider groups of like-minded people, among whom one may make new connections and strengthen one’s social bonds.
Rehab and Care
Volunteering in a rehab centre, or simply looking after the wild birds in the garden may act as a reminder to care for and respect oneself. Healing is a similar process to feeding birds. It happens a bit at a time, slowly, and one will eventually survive the winter.
This is probably the most relevant aspect of Birding. Birds are literally everywhere. They can be one’s first connection to the outside world during times of depression. Even when access to other animals is not possible, because one may not be allowed to keep pets, or may be allergic, or may not partake in AAT for any number of reasons, wild birds will still be accessible.
When observing birds, behavioural patterns can be noticed throughout the year. A nest box is especially useful to witness the cycle of life. There’s often clarity and peace in patterns; they give a sense of definition and stability in a world that may often make no sense. Birdwatching is also a way to draw comparisons between human and wildlife, finding similarities in the way birds experience society, family, loss, birth, freedom (and lack thereof), fragility and strength.
Bird song is not only pleasant natural music. Leaving the complexity of the avian language aside, those sounds tune directly into our caveman brain. For millennia, when humans hear a bird sing or call, they are reassured that everything is going to be alright, because bird song signals that there are no imminent predators or natural disasters (N. Buttery).
Birds mean different things to different people. Bird symbolism is ancient, and the meaning of a particular type of bird may vary greatly among cultures. One outstanding example is the magpie, having dark connotations in the Western world, while being the embodiment of love for the Chinese (C. Savage).
A bird may also have a personal meaning for a person. It may remind one of someone one loved and lost, or some of its characteristics and behaviour may resonate with a person.
Symbolism strongly affects the human mind, and positive associations can have a beneficial effect on the individual.
Art is strictly connected to symbolism, and birds have inspired humans for centuries. The avian world is present in music (“Earth-bound misfit, I” – Pink Floyd), paintings, sculptures, literature in its many genres. Birds seem to bring hope with their ability to fly, to take off from our worldly worries. I recently stumbled across a calendar where words of wisdom from spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh were accompanied by painting of birds by artist Nicholas Kirsten-Honshin. These took up seven out of twelve months. The Romans believed Caladrius, a white bird, to be able to recognise human illness and carry it away with it and disperse it.
During my research, I wondered how people going through depression and anxiety may avail of Birdwatching in cases where they’d also suffer from ornithophobia, the fear of birds.
The causes of ornithophobia can be multiple and mainly associated to past traumas, negative information and portrayal of birds (including media mis-representations), or folklore.
What I found interesting for the topic at hand, is that one of the suggested cures is exposure therapy. This needs to happen with the help of a psychologist or psychiatrist, however, the use of both pictures and real birds is mentioned. Birding in a controlled environment where the person may be made comfortable (e.g. from a hide or a window), would help people reduce their fear, and possibly avail of Avian Assisted Healing.
“An Analysis of the perceived Benefits of Birdwatching and Closeness to Wildlife and its Uses within Animal Assisted Therapy”
Introduction and Hypothesis
The following report is based on the feedback gathered for this specific research, and it is independent from existing studies and literature. It addresses a wide cross-section of the local population, with few exceptions, to obtain data from a variety of individuals.
It is generally believed that an exposure or closeness to Nature would change one’s perception of its benefits. This has already been recognised in regards to AAT, where domestic animals are used. The surveys presented for this research focus on Wildlife instead.
To gather feedback on the perceived benefits of Birdwatching from a varied group of individuals. Two separate surveys were submitted; one to birders and wildlife enthusiasts, the other to subjects who do not engage in outdoor activities involving Nature. Participants remain anonymous, but some information was gathered to further analyse population trends. Age goes from 30 to 70, with a prevalence of women, and most individuals considering themselves enthusiasts rather than experts (when practicing Birdwatching). Questions are based on my observations on the possible benefits of Birdwatching as listed in the previous section, and are offered to either confirm or disprove their validity.
Two surveys were tailored on two opposite samples of the population: individuals in contact with Wildlife and individuals not experiencing Wildlife (either by choice or because of their environment). A different approach was chosen because people who do not actively engage in the observation of Wildlife may not be able to answer very specific questions, as they lack a certain type of experience. For them, the questionnaire touched on the most relevant points but from a different point of view. Two separate surveys offered the opportunity to collect fair and balanced results.
***Copy of survey to birders***
Thank you for taking this anonymous survey. This is part of a research on the benefits of Birdwatching and its possible uses within Animal Assisted Therapy.
Before starting please state the following:
- Your gender:
- Your age:
- Your Birding experience:
Based on your experience, do you agree with the following statements?
|Birding stimulates both body and mind|
|Birding helps to reconnect with the outside world|
|Birding can be enjoyed when one is not able to be outdoors|
|Birding sharpens the senses|
|Birding lifts the mood and sparks new ideas|
|Birding teaches patience and quietens the mind|
|Birding aids socialising and team-work|
|Birding teaches care and gentleness towards others and self|
|Birding can be practiced everywhere|
|One may find similarities between people and birds|
|Bird song is soothing and comforting|
|Some birds carry a particular meaning for you|
|Birding may be beneficial to physical and mental health|
|You would be glad to see Birdwatching added to Animal Assisted Therapy and used in schools, hospitals and nursing homes|
Please feel free to add any further thoughts below:
***Copy of questionnaire to non-birders***
- What do you feel/think when you come across wildlife?
- Do you consider Birdwatching or observing wildlife a relevant element of man’s well-being?
- Do you think that adding above mentioned activities to school curricula, in nursing homes and hospitals would be beneficial?
A different set of questions was offered to birders and non-birders, and eventually summarised under four main categories: well-being (mental, physical and social); connection to Nature; learning/teaching opportunities; implementation within AAT.
As visible from the graph, there is little difference in the perception of how these areas are affected in the presence of wildlife between the two groups. An important note needs to be made on the results regarding connection. Due to the difference in questions and experience, non-birders were not specifically asked about their view on possible similarities between birds and our specie or whether specific birds may carry a particular meaning for them. This has resulted in the gap between the two groups of participants, and needs to be taken into consideration. The additional notes from each group shed further light on the given answers.
The four categories are further analysed here.
Well-being. Both groups agree on the benefits that Birdwatching and wildlife have on body and mind, with a minority among birders who don’t find it effective to stimulate the mind, spark new ideas or improve fitness. The non-birders who disagree stay away from Nature by choice, as they find animals in general disquieting, or they consider Birdwatching boring, although they respect people who enjoy the activity. Feedback from birders on well-being include: it can be as sociable or as solitary as you want it to be; it’s very good to sharpen observational skills, master patience and quieten the mind; it connects you to that specific moment in time, hence it leads to mindfulness; it’s a complete escape from stressful life in a world that is heavily technological; one participant stated it is important to protect wildlife, as it is beneficial to man’s well-being. Non-birders expressed a sense of serenity and wonder, and a help to find balance in a stressful life.
Connection to Nature. Birders agree on Birdwatching re-connecting people with their own place in Nature, one mentioning ‘sit-spotting’ to deepen the experience, and also a feeling of completion. However, a few disagree with the possibility of finding similarities between man and bird. The feedback on this point in particular referred mainly to the risk of anthropomorphising animals; one participant added that similarities may be found by people who study bird behaviour and compare the two species. Feedback from the non-birders is similar, experiencing the feeling of being part of something bigger.
Learning/Teaching. Most comments have been provided on this area by both groups. Participants have freely expressed their opinion on the opportunities that Birdwatching and wildlife provide in learning and also sharing knowledge. Comments from birders include: Birdwatching is good for learning, for caring about the habitat and share your interest with like-minded people; it awakes innate human skills and also leads you to use a scientific approach; birders love sharing their knowledge and help others; it’s a passion to be passed on to the next generation. Non-birders used words such as: fascinating; sense of curiosity; educational; relevant to conservation; learning / knowledge / understanding / respect.
AAT. All birders agree with implementing Birdwatching in AAT. Among non-birders some doubt was expressed, although they fully support pet-therapy. Birders state that Birding is for everyone, no matter the experience, knowledge level or ability; it is an ideal form of therapy for people who cannot travel or go outside; it can be enjoyed even from a window; a depression sufferer finds Birdwatching and wildlife very therapeutic, which is one of the reasons they should be protected. Most non-birders believe that observing wildlife can represent a moment of freedom for the ill and the elderly, and it’s particularly important for the next generation, in terms of both conservation and well-being.
The results of the survey indicate that, regardless of the participants actively seeking a contact with Nature or not, most people find encounters with wildlife beneficial on a number of levels. Birding possibly provides the easiest opportunity to experience such contact, as birds are everywhere and can be observed in many different ways. Participants to the survey placed significant importance on observation of other species, as it encourages understanding and conservation. There is concern for the next generation and a willingness to educate and share knowledge. I based my questions on my own experience, both as an observer of wildlife and a facilitator, and wanted to verify the validity of my ideas to support this project. Most points were confirmed by both birders and non-birders, including one that was not mentioned in the questionnaire, i.e. the benefit of observing behavioural patterns. One participant expressed the sense of amazement in watching migrants coming back each year. From the results at hand, I may conclude that adding Birdwatching (and consequently observing other wildlife) to AAT would be welcome and lead to positive outcome.
Besides supporting the idea that Birdwatching may be beneficial in AAT, the survey has raised other relevant points, mainly to do with conservation and a concern for the next generation. The willingness of the more experienced to help and the enthusiasm from all birders is a good indicator that the resources to increase knowledge and spark curiosity across all generations are available. Where Birdwatching would benefit residents in hospitals and nursery homes, offering a break in Nature, it may also improve mental health among anxiety and depression sufferers, and be enjoyed by individuals of all abilities. Last but not least, as mentioned by many, children need a more frequent contact with wildlife, as this may guarantee not only conservation and care of the environment in the future, but also an improvement in the management of mental health in the next generation.
From a participant:
‘… my little granddaughter sits on the sill of the window most days throughout the winter watching the birds come to the bird table and has shown a keen interest that I hope will remain with her for life, she is only 5 years old and can name most of the birds that come to the bird table and she wishes every day that she could just hold them for one minute. One afternoon a little Robin came into the house and I left her hold him for a second before realising it and the sheer joy that she felt in being able to hold it in her hands, she leaves the back door open in the hope that it might come in again.’
This section focuses on interviews to people who publicly expressed their ideas on the benefits of Birdwatching on mental health, and its impact on the habitat. They openly shared their experiences and were willing to assist with this particular study.
Lesley Earl lives in Canada and runs a successful YouTube channel, sharing her knowledge of local birds, whose trust she achieved to obtain. She has suffered from anxiety and depression, and this is how Birding helped her overcome her struggles and change her life for the better.
1) You stated that Birdwatching helped you overcome personal setbacks. What else had you tried to improve your life prior to Birding?
In all honesty, the only things I tried were speaking with a psychologist and taking meds. The Psychologist didn’t take any time to properly address the issue, he never listened to me and instead prescribed me medication and sent me on my way. The meds he prescribed made me a lot worse so much so that my family ordered me to stop taking it and my family doctor was outraged with what he did. Needless to say, I haven’t been back to see any psychologists. I should say though that I know not all are bad and many have helped people it’s just that my experience was a bad one.
I also was on anxiety medication for years which did help but nothing compared to when I first started Birding. It was the first time in my adult life that I never needed my anxiety meds I also didn’t suffer from depression anymore. It was incredible what nature and the birds did for me.
2) How did you come across Birdwatching?
It was completely accidental. one sunny day in late Feb, after being barred in the house all winter due to how cold and stormy that winter was, I went outside and walked the snowmobile trails behind where I live. I took my little point and shoot camera just to take pictures of snowy scenery but along the way, I saw birds I have never seen before. This fuelled my interest to learn more about them and discover what other birds were in my location.
3) Was there a particular moment or event, when Birding, that made you realise its benefits?
Yes, when my boyfriend pointed out how happier I’ve been. Also, during any stressful times, I have noticed a remarkable improvement in my mood when I’d go out and watch birds.
4) What do you find to be the most healing element of Birding?
There are so many but I guess if I had to pick it would probably be the calming effect it has. You are focused on what birds you will or are seeing, all the while breathing in oxygen-rich air, smelling the various aromas of the woods and getting some exercise. All mood improving.
5) How did Birding help you on a practical level (e.g. facing daily challenges, socialising etc.)?
I think that because Birding has a way of relaxing a person and also gives one plenty of time to self-reflect one can think more clearly about how to handle difficult situations with people. It has always helped me be more willing to listen to other people and respond reasonably. It has helped me work out problems and come up with solutions to them. It’s a healthy way to get away for a short period of time and them come back fully charged and with a clear mind.
6) Based on your experience, would you like to see Birdwatching added to Animal Assisted Therapy? (This may imply guidance from a qualified Facilitator)
Sure! I can’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be as long as the person is getting the help and relief they need. Plus it may help people appreciate and learn about birds, therefore, making them more likely to help in taking care of the environment.
7) Based on your experience, what are the three main benefits of Birding?
1. Improved mood
2. Healthier mind and body (I lost some weight and built muscle tone due to the exercise involved in Birding)
3. A decrease in anxiety and depression
Birding is a great hobby and a wonderful way to connect people to nature. Everyone should spend at least a little time out in nature each day and watching birds is one good excuse to go out there. Plus birds are pretty interesting and fun to observe.
Geoff Hunt is a Biodiversity Consultant with forty years’ experience in the field and who’s greatly involved in educating the future generations.
Connecting to nature improves your well-being and includes Birdwatching. There are different levels of Birdwatching, for some it is simply to feed them in the back garden. Others may go to the local park regularly to see what birds they can find. They will compare notes year on year and can see changes in the population of varies species.
The natural environment is an escape from the working environment and can relieve the stresses of daily life. One can focus on the animals and plants around them and take their minds of off other things. Babies in the push chair can hear the sounds around them such as bird song and will point to them. There are some particular bird species that are indicators of a healthy environment. By seeing these species it can give you great satisfaction that they have survived another year. However the opposite can be the case. Some birds have become extinct in certain areas like the Yellowhammer, Hen Harrier or Curlew. This is an indicator of habitat change and has caused a loss of Biodiversity. You can get great pleasure when you do see them.
Some people are wildlife photographers and will always try to get that better picture of birds. This is a challenge in its self and there is great satisfaction in concealing one’s self to close enough to get that shot. The challenge of being able to identify birds by sight or by sound is very rewarding. Birdwatching gives great pleasure to many people in many different ways. All this pleasure makes you feel good and in turn improves your well-being.
Being a member of a group of birders has a social aspect, meeting people with them same interest. Unfortunately nowadays people are spending more time on screens and less time outside. Parents are not spending the time with their children in the outdoors. Children are spending less time outside and are becoming disconnected to nature. This has long term implications for the overall well-being of future generations.
If you are not aware of something then you cannot care for it. Nowadays National schools are becoming a major factor in connecting children to nature as it is part of their syllabus. The average level of awareness of Biodiversity in Ireland is very low. When children and teachers become aware of something local that is new to them it can generate excitement which in turn improves their well-being.
In AAT the facilitator tailors a series of specific activities around each person aiming towards gradual improvement and/or recovery, depending on the case. As Birdwatching is a form of activity based on observation, lacking direct engagement with the therapy animal(s), I renamed the activities within Avian Assisted Healing “opportunities”. This is because each encounter will provide the birder with food for thought, giving them the opportunity to rediscover, reconnect and rebuild.
The following opportunities are grouped according to location (pond, garden, sea etc.) and divided into the structure below:
- Audience (who may benefit from the opportunity)
- Situation (what’s been observed)
- Stimulus (thoughts emerged from the situation; similarities; comparisons)
Note: the opportunities listed here were compiled during outings at different locations, and they are meant merely as a reference for similar situations one may experience.
Audience: Blocked by challenges; anxious about the unexpected.
Situation: A duck is swimming and comes across a tree root. The duck doesn’t stop and doesn’t go around it, instead, walks over it and continues towards its destination.
Stimulus: Overcome life’s obstacles fearlessly. Don’t let anything come in the way. Keep moving forward.
Audience: Out of touch with nature; feeling disconnected and isolated.
Situation: Sitting by the pond, absorbing the richness of all the elements in their totality. The pond offers a combination of water, air, earth and fire. Wetland birds carry the same elements in their ability to take to the sky, the water, the land and nourish from the sun.
Stimulus: Balanced life. Simplicity. Sense of contentment. Find joy in small things. Feel part of a bigger picture.
Audience: Hiding from perceived danger. Fear of others.
Situation: Moorhens feeding on land spot humans approaching. They quietly hide in the bushes and give alarm calls to each other.
Stimulus: Stand your ground. Find support among friends. Don’t push away the ones you can trust.
Audience: Isolated. Inactive. Feeling of alienation. Fear of speaking out.
Situation: Observe birds in flight and landing on different spots. Observe variety of birds and how they negotiate the area.
Stimulus: Own your space in this world. Right to share and be in this world. Right to enjoy life. Ability to find your place again.
Audience: Feeling oppressed.
Situation: Gull approaches boat and soars over it.
Stimulus: Myth of Caladrius, snow-white bird able to carry away illness from humans and disperse it. Let the weight inside you be lifted by the bird. Healing is possible.
Audience: General depression. Need for stability. Feeling that life won’t be the same again.
Situation: Observe life unfold around the nest box.
Stimulus: Family. TLC. Learning to fly; take off towards a new phase of your life. Importance of a schedule. Good times come back; life continues.
Audience: Anxiety and panic. Feeling that something is holding you back. Isolated. Oppressed. Housebound.
Situation: Observe caged birds (aviary, private house, rehab centre etc.)
Stimulus: What’s caging you? What’s preventing you from being free again?
Audience: Immigrants or people whose loved ones have emigrated.
Situation: Observe migratory birds.
Stimulus: Human migration. Home-sickness. Chance to travel and meet again.
Audience: Unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Situation: A tiny bird is holding on to a tree branch during a storm.
Stimulus: Face adversities. Hang in there, the storm will pass.
Simon Barnes, The Meaning of Birds
Tim Birkhead, The Wisdom of Birds
Niall Edworthy, The Curious Bird Lover’s Handbook
Anthony McGeehan, To the Ends of the Earth
Chris Packham, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar
Proctor & Lynch, Manual of Ornithology
Jim Robbins, The Wonder of Birds
Boria Sax, Crow
Candace Savage, Crows
Esther Woolfson, Corvus
J. Boll, Watching my Way to Mental Health – One Bird at a Time (2017)
M. De Vivo, Parrots as Animal Assisted Therapy (2016)
B. Granger & L. Kogan, Animal-Assisted Therapy in Specialized Settings (2010)
Pet Central, Therapy Birds: Emotional Support Animal? Or Merely a Pet? (2015)
H. Wachter, The Mental Health Benefits of Bird Watching (2017)
Special Thanks To:
Nadine Buttery, Geoff Hunt, Lesley Earl.