I recently moved to a marina in South Brooklyn. And the most dramatic mental change since moving out of the city’s epicenter toward the water is that I see and hear birds everywhere. Seagulls, buffleheads, swans, herons, geese, ducks – it is a bird metropolis.
Bird interaction on a day-to-day basis is naturally healing to our minds. Seeing birds first thing upon waking has been like flipping a switch in my brain. I immediately feel grateful for the day ahead of me. Rather than waking up with a sense of dread at the day’s agenda, I start the day with the thought, “Hello, world. I’m glad to see you.”
Which made me wonder – what is going on with this connection between birds, mindfulness, and relieving anxiety? And could this be helpful to young people who experience debilitating levels of stress?
Birds & Stress
Birds are natural stress-relievers. Research has shown that simply seeing and hearing birds can have a positive effect on mood and mental state lasting for up to 8 hours!
Why are birds so particularly good at giving us mental peace?
They are everywhere – you don’t have to go far to encounter a bird.
We can both see and hear them.
There are many bird species (research shows people’s happiness increases with bird diversity).
Migration patterns bring new observations.
Birding communities are abundant.
Birding gets you into nature.
Birdsong restores memory and heals stress.
There are so many reasons why interacting with birds brings us healing, but these are just a few. And it makes sense! In a world that’s constantly developing and changing, where we feel rushed, where we feel like we’re not enough – being present to a bird’s song may just be what we need. Especially for young people.
Teens & Stress
Teenagers today are more anxious than ever before. In a PEW survey, 70% of teens said that anxiety and depression were major problems in their age group. Suicide is now the 4th leading cause of death for 10-19-year-olds. Female teens are twice as likely to experience depression and anxiety than male peers. And around 20% of all teens experience depression but only 30% of them are being treated.
Why are teens so depressed and anxious today? Kathy Reamy, school counselor at La Plata High School in southern Maryland, sheds some light on it for us.
“Honestly, I’ve had more students this year hospitalized for anxiety, depression, and other mental-health issues than ever. There’s just so much going on in this day and age, the pressures to fit in, the pressure to achieve, the pressure of social media. And then you couple that with the fact that kids can’t even feel safe in their schools . . . and it all makes it so much harder to be a teenager.”
Today’s world is a scary place. Teenagers are keenly aware of the dangers of school shootings, climate crisis, and social media bullying. It is normal to feel invincible as a teen – there is a great sense of power and ability that comes with all the bodily and social changes and growth. But when teens experience a psychological distress that contrasts this feeling of power, it can plunge them into feeling that they are incapable or inherently wrong.
This feeling is exacerbated by social media. TikTok videos of young people describing anxiety symptoms and communicating their mental health struggles as fact rather than experience are leading to an overinflation of teens diagnosing themselves through social media rather than through the advice of a professional.
This is why it’s more important than ever to help young people develop techniques to build a “teenager mindfulness” – to mete out helpful and harmful information, build up self-knowledge, and tend to their own mental wellbeing rather than conflating others’ experiences with their own.
Ornitherapy – Mindful Birding
So, what’s the connection? How can birdwatching help our teens cope with the onslaught of anxiety and stress that’s surrounding them?
Ornitherapy is the practice of combining a mindfulness practice with birdwatching. Where birdwatching involves seeking and identifying birds, ornitherapy focuses on being present with birds in a meditative, observant way.
This distinction is important. Teens are inundated with to-do’s and expectations. They are balancing school, friends, family, sports, extracurriculars, and preparations for college. There is always another goal to meet, another challenge to conquer.
Teens need to discover that simply being is enough. They need to be able to unplug from the noise. Ornitherapy is an amazing mindfulness practice for teens. It allows teens to put aside the lists, the goals, and the comparisons for a little bit. It teaches them how to ground themselves in the present moment, observe life around them, and simply exist at peace with themselves and the natural world.
5 Tips for Practicing Ornitherapy
But where to begin? Here are 5 easy tips to help you create your own ornitherapy practice.
1. Find a convenient location. Find a convenient place near your home, a place you enjoy being, and take some time each day or week to sit and observe the birds around you. Don’t pull out an app or keep a list – just sit and observe the birds. Even 10 minutes outside observing will provide a sense of calm. Returning to the same location will help you learn about the birds in your area and feel more and more familiar.
Check out this field guide to discover best times of day depending on what birds you are interested in discovering.
2. Listen. Our minds are naturally wired to try to make connections and ask questions. When practicing ornitherapy, try to let go of the need to identify or make sense of. Realize that the birdcalls you hear are music – you don’t need to Shazam them or figure out which species is singing and why. Just appreciate the music and feel it.
3. Observe. It is easy to look at a bird but not really see it. The thoughts and questions that naturally arise can keep us from really seeing the bird. When you’re observing, try to really see each bird – observe the colors, the textures of the wings, the shape of the head and the wing. There is no need to identify or to know. Simply observe.
4. Draw. You may be thinking, “I can’t draw.” Think of how a child draws or paints with absolute certainty. They aren’t concerned with whether they can create, they simply do it! Try to silence the inner critic and allow yourself to put pencil to paper. Drawing is an incredible way to see the world with fresh, observant eyes. And if you really want some guidance, this nature drawing book can help you get started.
5. Journal. Write down the observations and thoughts that come to you while watching birds. Journaling is a powerful way to observe and accept your own thoughts, emotions, and natural curiosity. Maybe you find a certain movement of a bird funny or you are touched by the light on a wing. Try not to overanalyze or produce anything – you are simply recording what you observe. No self-judgement!
If you are curious about ornitherapy and want to experience it for yourself, our NJIN farm is open to you. Our farm is home to over 26 different bird species and students who visit us enjoy taking time to observe bird behavior and journal their experiences.
We would love to be a resource for you. At NJIN, we are passionate about equipping young people with a sense of self-curiosity so they can build observation skills, solve problems, and gain self-knowledge through gaining nature knowledge. Be sure to subscribe to our mailing list to be kept up to date on our program offerings and times to visit. And make sure to follow us on Instagram – we’d love to connect with you!