Why should teens care about birds? We asked a retired psychiatrist and birding sage

Birding is so much fun for the teens who know about it, but many people are unaware. We interviewed Gregg Gorton, a retired Harvard-trained psychiatrist and recent president of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club (DVOC), to discuss the mental, physical and social aspects of birding. See his profile here.

November 2022

Gregg's "Spark Bird," the Yellow-shafted (Northern) Flicker

What got you interested in birding?

I have been interested in the "natural world" since I was 7 years-old and moved into a new home right on the edge of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. With my three brothers, I explored that habitat and learned a lot about the plants, lizards, snakes, scorpions & tarantulas, mammals, and birds. In my Golden Guide to Birds, there were many species illustrated that I felt sure I would never see, because they were only in the East.

Many years later, around when I turned forty, I took my 5 year-old son on a birdwalk at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. On that walk, I became entranced with birding-by-ear, and one of the birds I vividly recall hearing & seeing that day was the Yellow-shafted (now Northern) Flicker, one of the very birds I never expected to see in my life! After that, I was hooked on birding.

As a retired psychiatrist, have you noticed any health benefits or connections to birding?

Going outside to bird and to enjoy and learn about the many other living things became my refuge from the stresses of psychiatric practice. Birding-by-ear, especially, was a way of entering a meditative state-of-mind, and was very relaxing. It became a crucial part of my maintaining my own well-being and having work-life balance. 

Have you recommended birding to any of your patients or acquaintances as stress relief?

At times when I thought it might be appropriate for a patient, I would encourage them to spend time outside and "tune in" on the natural world. 

What do you think a teenager can gain from birding?

By engaging with what nature has to offer, teenagers can discover aspects of themselves that they may not be fully aware of, such as their visual and auditory capacities, and their ability to "lose themselves" in a non-human environment. They may have only had such experiences while playing video games, communicating on social media, or playing sports. 

In addition, by becoming attuned to the natural world, teens can become so enamored of it and concerned about it that they develop an awareness of larger environmental issues, and phenomena like climate change, habitat destruction, altered weather patterns, and how all living things on our planet are ultimately connected. 

Also, teens can learn that birding is a new way of making friends and of meeting all sorts of different people, so it can help them connect with both peers and adults, and even find new pathways and doors opening up.

Can you share any advice for aspiring birders?

Spend as much time as possible out "in the field"—even if it's only around your own house, block, or in a local "patch" of woods or field. Enjoy those times! But, then, take your experiences indoors with the questions that have popped into your mind while outside (like "How can a bird that tiny survive here in Winter?") to study and learn as much as you can about what is already known. Then you can start forming questions about what is not yet known, and—who knows?—maybe you will become a scientist or an environmental activist (or both!).

But maybe you will simply feel more confident, more fulfilled, and more secure & knowledgeable in your place in the world. 

Gregg rescuing a Violet-Green Swallow