By Jim Poling Sr.
Probably the best thing anyone can do after listening to a morning newscast is to go outside and listen to the birds. Studies show that birds are beneficial to our mental health, and our mental health can use all the benefits it can get in these troubled times.
A study in the United Kingdom reported an abundance of birds is positively associated with lower prevalence of depression, anxiety and stress in people. And, during the coronavirus pandemic a poll of 2,000 UK adults found that two-thirds had improved enjoyment because of hearing and watching birds.
Another study, spanning 26 countries in Europe, directly associated life satisfaction with seeing and hearing birds, or experiencing landscapes that promote bird richness.
Few will argue that having birds around makes us feel better. Sadly, however, the world’s bird populations continue to decline.
BirdLife International reported recently that 49 per cent of the earth’s birds are in decline. Its 2018 report said 40 per cent are in decline, so the number of birds at risk has increased by a whopping nine per cent in only four years.
BirdLife also said that one in eight bird species are threatened with extinction.
This bad news follows a 2019 Science journal report that there are 2.9 billion fewer individual birds in Canada and the United States than there were 50 years earlier. That’s a 29 per cent decline.
Climate change is an emerging driver for bird declines, according to a new study released earlier this week by Cornell University in New York State. Climate changes are affecting migration patterns with some birds flying north earlier in the spring and delaying autumn migration.
There is some evidence that some birds are skipping fall migration altogether.
Birds take their cues from the environment, so if climate changes alter migration times and routes, feeding patterns and breeding times also are affected.
Climate change may be becoming an important factor, but habitat loss has been the main reason for bird declines over many decades. Residential and commercial development, agriculture and logging all have been taking away habitat birds need for life.
Hunting and trapping, wildfires and the introduction of invasive alien species also have been a factor.
Reports documenting the disappearance of birds is no surprise to many of us. Every year there seem to be fewer common birds at our feeders and less birdsong in the trees around us.
Declining bird numbers are not a tragedy because there are fewer to provide us joy. Birds are essential service workers who pollinate our plants, disperse seeds over large areas, and control insects.
Most importantly, they are nature’s sentries, warning us of dangers to the health of our environment.
Bird extinctions can lead to extinctions of essential plants, which can lead to extinctions of insects and other flora and fauna. One extinction leads to a chain reaction, which eventually leads to human beings.
Fortunately, there is a growing awareness of the fact that everything in nature is connected. That awareness is helping to promote individual actions that help to reduce bird losses.
Here are a few suggestions that bird protection groups say can help:
Think about having less lawn and more native plants around your home.
Use film or other items that stop reflections and prevent birds from flying into windows.
Keep cats indoors or controlled when outside.
Buy shade-grown coffee. Farmers cut down forests to grow coffee in the sun.
Shade-grown coffee protects forests.
Reduce use of plastics, which can be particularly harmful to seabirds.
Get involved with citizen projects such as the Christmas Bird Count and Project FeederWatch.
We humans need birds for our mental well-being. With killer viruses on the rise, Putin threatening to unleash nuclear weapons and the U.S. on the verge of another civil war, it’s a relief just to step outside and hear a sparrow singing to its mate.
As Sam Knight, a program manager at the Nature Conservancy of Canada, told the CBC recently:
“It’s such a great mental health benefit to have these birds and species around; you don’t even have to be a bird watcher, I don’t think, to really appreciate what birds add to our lives.”