Birding is suddenly a cool way to hook up with nature while doing your body (and soul) good.
By MEG CRANE
Birding (aka birdwatching) is a safe hobby, says Christian Artuso, just before he tells the story of the time he almost died while doing it.
The lanky Winnipegger was climbing a mountain in Peru on the hunt for a rare, long-whiskered owlet. When he finally spotted one, Artuso, who is the program manager for Bird Studies Canada in Manitoba, leaned back for a better view and nearly plummeted to a bumpy death.
Birding doesn’t have to be life-threatening. Take the workshops Artuso ran last May at FortWhyte Alive. Over a dozen people of varying ages and abilities set out for a leisurely walk in the prairie lover’s paradise armed only with sensible shoes and binoculars. An hour later, they all came back alive.
And probably in better spirits.
Besides the obvious health benefits, 30 minutes of walking every day significantly boosts the moods of people suffering from depression, according to a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Simply spending time outdoors in a natural setting can also improve people’s mental health, says a growing body of evidence.
Put the two together, and birding is a perfect hobby for anyone looking for a quick and easy way to ditch the blues or relieve stress. (For clinical depression, the walking cure usually take weeks, and it may not work at all.)
“For me, it’s relaxing,” says Artuso, who blogs about his birding experiences at artusobirds.blogspot.ca. In part, he says, it’s because he’s focused, tuned in to any bird sounds around him.
In a way, birding is a walking meditation – the practice of focusing on your movements and sensations as you walk, without letting your mind wander. Except in the case of birding, you’re focusing on the landscape, searching for the movement of wings, the colour of feathers, a unique birdsong.
Which leads to yet another mental health benefit of watching birds. Birders learn to identify many different species by sight and sound. They may study up at home or take a book out into the field. Either way, they’re giving their brains a workout by acquiring knowledge and applying new skills. That’s the kind of mental exercise, research suggests, that staves off dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. So birdwatching could be just what the gerontologist ordered, especially if your work or lifestyle doesn’t demand a lot from your mental muscles.
Birding can be good for the planet, too. When people regularly connect with nature, says Artuso, they start to care about it. “When there’s [conservation] issues, they’ll fight for them.”
For Bryce Hoye, editor of The Manitoban, a love of nature as a child led to years of summer jobs studying, monitoring and protecting birds in the field. Spending days alone in the bush, Hoye began to emotionally connect with the birds. On one occasion, he says his heart broke as he watched a young bird in a beach nest raise his wing to shelter his dead sibling from the rain. Another time, Hoye became enraged when a bird attacked a gull colony he was watching over. He actually tried to scare away the invader with a flare gun.
Hoye says he began to attach human emotions to the birds. Looking back, he’s sure it was all in his head. But he doesn’t sound convinced.
Hoye’s summer jobs watching birds in the wild are a thing of the past, but birds are everywhere, even in the heart of Winnipeg. These days he finds time to stop and watch them hopping around on Broadway and nesting near his Osborne Village home.
Hoye says a birding culture has formed in Winnipeg, with lots of support for people who want to try it out but aren’t sure where to start. A good place to tap into that network is the Yahoo group “Birds and Birding in Manitoba” (groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/Manitobabirds/info). And while you’re online, Hoye also recommends Dendroica (natureinstruct.org/dendroica), a site used by biologists to study in preparation for fieldwork. With the click of a mouse, you can see and hear any bird. The site even allows people to test their visual and aural bird-identifying skills. For those who would like to get out from behind their computers, Bird Studies Canada plans workshops and meet-ups throughout the year. While nothing is set in stone yet, Artuso says to watch the website (birdatlas.mb.ca) for announcements.
With so many bird species in the city, Hoye sees urban Winnipeg as a good candidate for the birdwatching revival that’s already hit trendy centres like Manhattan. South of the border, birding is nearly as popular these days as going to the beach.
So why not get ahead of the trend and dust off those binoculars to see which feathery flyers are frolicking in the trees of your neighbourhood or even in your own backyard?
Meg Crane is a freelance writer, founding editor of Cockroach and associate director of Forever MicroRanch Sanctuary. But, most importantly, she’s an expert of working while snuggling animals of all kinds. Follow her on Twitter @MegCrane. (cockroachzine.com).