It is -30 C outside and snow is falling heavily on a cloudy day. I arrive at the forest, hop over the creek and head over to one of my favourite spots up on a hill, overlooking a quiet winter wonderland in the middle of suburbia – my haven. 

I sit down in the snow, spill some of my black oil sunflower seeds on the ground, take out my camera and wait in anticipation. Soon enough black-capped chickadees appear out of the monochrome poplar forest and begin their dance navigating around me for food. 

There’s something about birds, something intriguing, ineffable almost. Few things bring as much comfort in isolation as I’ve received from birds – simply being in nature with my feathered friends, but why? 

There’s a growing trend in medicine to look at mental health issues more holistically, and an increased emphasis on the importance of nature for people’s well-being and mental health. An umbrella review of studies found evidence supporting the benefits of “forest-bathing” on psychological and physical well-being. 

“Nature has no expectations of you. You are free to be as you are.”

Forest bathing is a traditional meditative practice involving walking in a forest at a comfortable pace while observing and contemplating the surrounding environment. The review found that spending time mindfully in nature may decrease anxiety levels, boost mood, as well as possibly boost immune function and cardiovascular health.

For much of my life, I have struggled with my mental health. Now, I have years of trauma to begin to unpack, and no idea how to do so. 

Mother nature alone wouldn’t rid me of my trauma, but she turned out to be one of my gentlest healers, birds her most cherished messengers singing in my mind. When it seemed as though there was nowhere left to turn, I could disappear into the sounds, sights and silence of nature, and be. 

A Cedar Waxwing rests among blooming crab apple blossoms in Okotoks, Alberta. PHOTO: Taylor Holmes

Nature has no expectations of you. You are free to be as you are. My little local patch of forest embraced me many times with the delicate trickle of the stream, the trees bending and creaking in the wind and the drumming of woodpeckers in nearby trees. 

What’s so soothing about nature? In another umbrella review, Valentino Roviello and her colleagues state that being around trees could potentially reduce cortisol levels by reducing anxiety and stress in people. 

Cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormone, it triggers our “fight or flight” response. When cortisol levels are elevated in the body over an extended period of time, an array of health issues can occur like decreased immune function.

Roviello and colleagues noted that mental health issues have been on the rise due to stress related to the pandemic. They suggest that prescribing time in nature may be an effective treatment for certain mental health issues. 

Mental Wealth is an organization that aims to provide an array of accessible mental health resources for people to empower themselves. Vick Maan, founder of the Mental Wealth campaign, says the importance of nature is vital for a healthy mind. 

Maan, who has struggled with depression, believes nature has been one of his greatest teachers once he started paying attention to it, bringing him out of his own thoughts. The importance of spending time in nature has been crucial, not only for Maan’s own well-being but that of many of the people he works with. 

“If you are experiencing some kind of difficulties with your own mental health, and if you aren’t incorporating nature into your lifestyle, I can tell you that if you give it some time, it can be a life changer,” said Maan. 

None of this begins to explain why birds are so lovely and special to me and many others. Unfortunately, there is hardly any research on the psychological benefits of bird-watching. Often, references to birds in a study as a piece in the greater experience of a forest, where the trees are given the most credit. 

However, a couple of pigeons downtown are enough to make me smile, and chattering magpies are enough to make my day, even when all that surrounds me is a concrete jungle.

Barbara Harrison has been birding for decades. After a challenging year of losing her job and getting a divorce, Harrison moved to Calgary from Ontario to be closer to her family. Harrison says that her stress melts away when she’s in nature birding. Birding has also helped her slow down and focus on the beauty right in front of her.

“You have to learn to be a little bit still, you know when you’re still in nature, more nature is around you,” said Harrison, “I don’t think we know how to slow down as much and just notice, and birding really calls for that.”

I think what makes birds so special to me is that they are supremely accessible. Not everybody has easy access to parks with ample forest cover, nor can we always take time out of our busy schedules to go spend a couple of hours in a forest. 

But birds, they’re everywhere. On campus at Mount Royal University alone you can find black-billed magpies, house sparrows, black-capped chickadees, Swainson’s hawks, northern flickers, rock pigeons, American crows and mallards, among others.

Taylor Holmes befriending Black-capped chickadees during winter in Calgary. PHOTO: Charles Boulet

Another benefit of birding is that it seems: once a birder always a birder. Once you tune into birds, become accustomed to their patterns and have their calls learned, it’s second nature, automatic and meditative. Birding is a lifestyle, one that mandates mindfulness – if I want to enjoy the birds, I remain present in the moment, aware of what’s around me. 

Birding reminds you of the little things and to be grateful for them, because when birding you are mostly paying attention to little things. Even when it’s well below freezing, or the storms of my mind are in a flurry, there are likely some little birds there surviving the storm with us, a reminder of that which is good and that we can endure.

A couple of pigeons on a sidewalk lacks the punch of going on a three-hour stroll through a forest for your mental health. But birds, whether I am in the middle of the mountains, or downtown Calgary, are always around me, always connecting me to the natural world. 

The research on birding and its benefits is scarce, but talk to anyone who bird-watches and you’ll hear the same story. I can’t explain what it is about those black-capped chickadees that draw me out in the depths of winter, or why the drumming of a northern flicker soothes my soul. However, I do know that the joy of birding is always there, city or country, waiting.

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