Why listening to birds is good for your health

“Shag me, shag me, shag me.”

After weeks of hearing a Great Tit scream this from the tree outside my bedroom, I was ready to sign him up to bird Tinder. OK, so I’m not a bird whisperer, and he might have been saying “Oi lazy, the feeder’s empty.” But it was that time of year when the birds all get a bit frisky and their calls a bit louder, and this poor fellow really did seem to be missing out on all the action.

Despite slightly jarring addition to the soundscape of my garden, I love to sit and listen to the different birds coming and going, chatting and scrapping, or in the case of the most ubiquitous of songbirds, the blackbird, announcing the start and end of the day. Each bird has a different story to tell and if you listen closely you can even tell that the rain is coming because the sparrows start to cheep and chirrup louder and more frantically — I like to think they are doing a public service by telling me to get my washing in.

In a study by researchers from the University of Surrey, birdsong was shown to be associated with perceived stress recovery and attention restoration, although not all birds were equal in their ability to calm. Wood pigeons and even chickens were associated with stress reduction, while “spooky” owls and the chattering and raucous magpies were seen as stressors in their own right.

I’m not sure I agree with the latter as I love the magpies that come to my garden (including a playful family of five last year) and often have rambling conversations with them as they scoop up the leftover hedgehog biscuits. They are super intelligent (they drop the hard biscuits in water to soften them before eating) and I feel they appreciate the effort I make to create a bird-safe garden environment. But I can see how the calls they make could be disruptive to others.

Quite often the sound of a bird is the only thing to give away their presence, especially in urban areas where they might not be as obvious. The song of the robin can be heard long before you spy him hiding on the upper branches of a tree. Sitting and looking out of my office window there is a row of trees between me and the next lot of houses, and it is a haven for frequent and just passing avian friends. In the summer when all the leaves are out, the songs and calls are all there is to identify who is lurking in amongst the green.

The cackling anguish that is a spooked blackbird is easy to recognise, others I have yet to learn, but a new sound is sure to catch my ear, and draw me away from my work for a few minutes of immersion in nature.

The University of Surrey study showed that birdsong was the preferred natural sound (over water and other animal sounds) and that it could provide a distraction or alternative focus from stressors. But, unfortunately, this wonderful, free and natural stress reliever may not be around for future generations as the number of songbirds is in decline thanks to modern farming practices that destroy their natural environments.

We must act now to stop further destruction of these environments before we lose their songs forever. One way to help is to support local bird charities such as the RSPB in the UK or the American Bird Conservancy in the US. Another is to be aware of the sounds around you, learn which feathered friend is visiting your garden, office building or park. The more you listen the more you will be aware of any changes and be able to act.

And remember, if the birds are singing, then nature has a smile on her face, and so will you.

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