Man taking photo of starlings at sunset
Climate and environment, Mental health

Being around birds can boost your mental wellbeing

Participants in diary study reported greater wellbeing when they could see or hear birds, and this effect wasn't simply caused by being in nature more generally.

30 November 2022

By Emily Reynolds

We already know that nature can have a positive impact on our mental health. Gardening, being in green spaces, and being around water can all improve our wellbeing. This became particularly clear during the pandemic, when many people in cities had limited access to nature.

Yet while green spaces such as parks and gardens are frequently cited as being good for our mental health, there has been little research into the impact of wildlife on our mood. A new study in Scientific Reports finds that seeing and hearing birds can have a positive impact on our wellbeing, even for people who are experiencing symptoms of depression.

The researchers, led by Ryan Hammoud from King’s College London, collected data from 1292 participants via an app, Urban Mind, which measures people’s experiences of urban or rural life. First, participants shared demographic data, sleeping patterns, and mental health diagnoses they had received. Then, three times per day for two weeks, participants completed surveys asking what they were experiencing right at that moment. These included a question about whether or not they could see or hear birds in the moment, as well as whether or not they could see trees, plants, or water. Participants also rated the extent to which they agreed with ten statements – five relating to positive mental wellbeing (“I am feeling confident/relaxed/happy/connected to others/energetic”) and five related to negative mental wellbeing (“I am feeling anxious/stressed/down/lonely/tired”).

The team found that seeing or hearing birds was related to more positive feelings of mental wellbeing in that moment. This was true even after the researchers took into account whether participants could see trees, water or plants, suggesting that seeing and hearing birds played a specific role in wellbeing rather than being part of a wider beneficial encounter with nature. There was evidence of a lasting effect too: seeing or hearing birds at one time point was associated with greater wellbeing at the next, though this effect wasn’t as strong.

The team also looked at whether or not there was a difference in the impact of encounters with birds specifically on those with a diagnosis of depression and those without any mental health diagnoses. They found no difference between the two groups, suggesting that hearing and seeing birds has a similar impact on the mental wellbeing of those with and without mental health conditions.

Overall, the results show a significant impact of birds on mental wellbeing – a fact that many of us potentially overlook or fail to acknowledge. This was the case regardless of age, gender, and ethnicity, and whether or not participants had diagnosed mental health conditions. However, the researchers didn’t record whether participants lived in an urban or rural area. It would be interesting to know whether exposure to nature has a greater impact on those living in an urban area, where green spaces are less common, than on people who live in the countryside.

The research has numerous policy implications. First, the team notes, the findings provide an additional reason for prioritising wildlife and environmental protections, especially those focused on biodiversity. Secondly, the results give more credence to so-called “green prescribing”, in which those with mental health diagnoses are encouraged to spend time in nature.