What is Ornitherapy?
The word Ornitherapy can hold many meanings to different people and is not my word or that of my coauthors of the book Ornitherapy. I could find the word first used in print in the British Journal of Medicine in 1979 by Dr. A.F. Cox. While Dr. Cox aptly titled the therapeutic value of watching birds, the name itself can have many interpretations based on individual styles and preferences.
We know through science-based research that spending time connecting to the natural world helps lower cortisol levels (a stress hormone), blood pressure and anxiety, alleviate symptoms of depression, and improve our cognitive function.
Studies also show that when we use nature to redirect our attention by intentionally paying attention to birds and nature, the practice holds restorative benefits to our brain function (memory, ability to focus and retain information) and boosts feelings of well-being. Because birds are natural gateways into deeper experiences with nature, displaying charisma in their color patterns, shapes, behaviors, flight, and full concert of vocalizations, there are benefits beyond the enjoyment. And this is Ornitherapy.
How can a young birder practice it?
In an era when young birders are pressured with so many aspects of life, allowing birds to be companions in helping offset stress and anxiety, and promote overall wellness is not only easy but fun. Can you relate to a time when observing birds (by sight or ear) made you feel better, or improved your mood? If so, then you were practicing Ornitherapy.
I encourage all birders to set aside time to be intentional in using bird observation as part of personal wellness. This is a bit different than traditional birding, where we collect data for eBird, etc., because the intention in our birding is a bit different. With the practice of Ornitherapy or Mindful Birding (see https://www.themindfulbirdingnetwork.com/mindful-birding), the focus here is not on making identifications or censusing numbers of birds; instead, the focus shifts towards slowing down, engaging all the senses, and just relaxing. Let nature just happen around you. Don’t worry about not seeing enough species or getting good enough looks. The goal is to slow down and not be judgmental of how we observe or what we do or don’t observe. When we set off with this intention, finding a “sit spot” or practicing mindful walking, it’s amazing how much closer the birds come to us, and how much less we disturb them! This is why backyards or even windows looking at feeders can be some of the best places to practice ornitherapy- because you don’t need to go far at all!