If you’re looking for a New Year’s resolution that will improve your health, increase your exercise, calm you down and raise your heartbeat at the same time, here’s the rare pastime that does all that in one fowl swoop, so to speak.
Take up birding.
When we first started on the birding trail five years ago, we were following in the path of friends who shared their infectious fascination for birds. It certainly took: We started taking long walks in the woods around Washington, D.C. We bought a few birding guides. We gradually came to recognize some of the calls and flight styles of different species.
Only later did we come to appreciate birding as a healthy hobby. When was the last time you fell into a new habit that was actually good for you?
Some of that healthiness stems from the obvious: If you want to find birds, you have to go outside and look for them, often for miles and hours at a time. The further into the woods you venture, the better your chances.
There are also less obvious benefits: When you’re out on the hunt, you enter a kind of zone that takes you out of yourself. It’s almost as if time stands still when you find yourself in a nice-weather day flush with sightings. We’ve always thought a day of birding was like a mental message, though we didn’t know exactly why.
Now it turns out there’s a dose of science that helps explain it. In a study of 270 people, England’s University of Exeter found concrete mental health advantages to people who spend time amid birds and trees. According to a 2017 article in the Journal BioScience, the university reported lower rates of depression, anxiety and stress among the study’s subjects.
An earlier study, this one published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, found that listening to bird songs contributed to better attention skills and reduced stress. This joins a number of studies that explored health benefits of birdwatching, from the exercise to the improvement in sight that can come from using binoculars.
The truth is, you don’t really need research to know how good it is to get outside and tune into the restorative powers of nature. The more birdwatching you do, the more you want to do. It’s the opposite of what we’ve always found with New Year’s vows to exercise more that fade by February.
The thrill of the search, the appeal of learning something new, and the sheer wonder of nature’s work through birds combine to pull you in more deeply.
We’ll always remember the first group outing we took as novice birders. It was right in the middle of Washington, D.C., on Roosevelt Island, situated in the Potomac about a mile from the White House, where the dominant sounds are the roar of jets at nearby National Airport.
Still, plenty of birds put up with it all. TJ Myers, a lifelong birder and veterinarian retired from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, took a small group from Foggy Bottom West End Village on an early morning tour. We saw Redwing Blackbirds, chickadees, cardinals, herons, ducks and several warblers.
Since then, Roosevelt Island has been a favorite destination for a quick avian fix. And birding has been our permanent New Year’s resolution.