Ralph Gardner Jr: Birding For Mental Health | WAMC

Ralph Gardner Jr: Birding For Mental Health

Apr 24, 2021

The spring’s first Rose-breasted grosbeak in 2020
Credit Ralph Gardner Jr.

Perhaps you’re familiar with eBird. It’s an online database run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology where you can record the birds you’ve observed and check out what your neighbors have been seeing. I know bird watching isn’t for everyone. Society has become increasingly riven and not just between Democrats and Republicans. But also between those who are passionate about birds and those who aren’t.

While I fall firmly into the former category I can see the argument for the other side. Birds tend to be small and furtive. Many of them are nondescript. And some of the best and brightest such as warblers – I’m talking coloration not intelligence – have an annoying habit of flitting between branches in the tree canopy so quickly that one identifies them, if at all, at the risk of a stiff neck.

But there’s been lots of new research that claims that watching birds, whether from one’s window or walking in a park or the woods, can improve one’s mental health. Not only that but also that birds provide people as much happiness as money. Personally, given the option, I think I’d take the money. But I understand where the researchers are coming from: bird watching constitutes a profitable, life-affirming form of meditation. Have you ever noticed that you don’t see many interesting birds as you walk or drive from one place to another, other than those too large or numerous to miss?

Seeing the good stuff requires that you first still your senses, that you get in synch with fields and forests. Once you do you’ll probably notice lots of stuff you hadn’t before. And not just birds. Also the way the wind sifts through the trees. And the tiny flowers springing from weeds that you’ve never made any effort to identify. It makes you wonder what else is going on that our senses are too dull or distracted to catch?

I’ve used eBird mostly to register my own sightings and, being competitive, to see whether other local birders have spotted the same species or whether I’m the first. I never am but I came close last May when I was the runner-up observing a returning Ruby-throated hummingbird. First prize, not that there are any prizes, went to Rich Guthrie, a birding expert who can often be heard on WAMC’s Vox Pop answering listeners birding questions.

One of eBird’s most useful tools is that you can pore through your own records and see when you first sighted a particular migrating species in previous years. For example, in 2020 I saw my first Baltimore Oriole on May 6th. In 2019, the striking orange and black bird started carousing the prolific white blossoms of the callery pears on our driveway one day earlier, on May 5th.

I can well appreciate that not everybody finds this information fascinating. But when you consider that Baltimore Orioles, despite their name and association with a baseball team that’s produced the likes of Cal Ripken and Brooks Robinson, have journeyed not from Maryland but from their winter homes in Florida, the Caribbean, Central America and even South America and arrived in our backyard on almost the same day as they did the previous year and the one before that – allowing for inaccuracies and inadequacies in my observational skills – you could probably be persuaded to admit that’s pretty cool.

For all the chaos afoot in the world, keeping your eyes peeled for the return of orioles and dozens of other charismatic species – Rose-breasted grosbeaks, Scarlet tanagers, hummingbirds -- is reassuring in ineffable ways. It’s a way of going outside yourself, of ingratiating yourself with nature’s rhythms, of realizing that the miraculous is an everyday part of life.

It also provides incentive, in case one requires it, to revere and protect nature. As with anything else you’re more likely to get involved if you have skin in the game. Much of the weather this week has been anything but spring-like. I tend to associate the season with budding trees and bushes, not snowflakes and wind-chill. But I’m planning to soon brew my hummingbird nectar – one cup sugar to four cups water – and hang my feeders earlier than ever before. I’ve never sighted a hummingbird in these parts in April but you never know. And, no, it’s not because I want to beat Rich Guthrie into the record books this year. Not that that wouldn’t be nice.

That’s one of the other neat things about eBird. You can track your favorite species as they make their way up the East Coast. The closest a Ruby-throated hummingbird been spotted so far this year is in southern Connecticut on April 18th. Given the weather it’s probably going to be another week-and-a-half before they make it to my feeders. A Baltimore Oriole was seen in the Syracuse area on the same day. But the mass of the migration still seems to be far south of us, in North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland.

But the most amazing thing about spotting them once they arrive, no matter how often you have in years past, is that it feels as if you’re doing so for the first time. Their presence signifies not just their resurgence, and the season’s, but also your own.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.