A swallow may not make a summer, but seeing or hearing birds improves mental well-being, the researchers found.
The study, led by academics from King’s College London, also found that daily encounters with birds improved the mood of depressed people, as well as the general population.
The researchers said the findings suggest that visits to bird-rich places, such as parks and canals, could be prescribed by doctors to treat mental health conditions. They added that their findings also highlighted the need to better protect the environment and improve biodiversity in urban, suburban and rural areas in order to preserve bird habitats.
The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, tracked 1,292 participants’ daily encounters with birds last year via a smartphone app called Urban Mind.
Over the course of two weeks, participants from the UK, Europe, the US, China and Australia were asked at random intervals to record how they felt, including if they were happy or stressed, if they could see trees, and if they could see or hear birds.
The researchers found that participants’ mean mental well-being scores increased when they saw or heard birds, even among those who revealed they had been depressed.
This beneficial effect lasted even beyond the time of the bird encounter, with higher levels of mental well-being noted by participants who did not see or hear the birds the next time they recorded their mood.
However, this positive effect does not persist if participants did not encounter birds during their subsequent mood assessment, which the researchers said indicated “a possible causal effect of avifauna on mental well-being”.
Andrea Mechelli, Professor of Early Intervention in Mental Health at King’s College London, said: “We need to create and support environments, particularly urban environments, where birdlife is a constant feature. To have a healthy bird population, you also need plants, you also need trees. We have to feed the entire ecosystem within our cities. “
He added that the positive effect of bird encounters on people with depression was significant because many “interventions that help so-called ‘healthy people’ don’t work for people with mental health problems.”
Mechelli said: “We know that exercise makes everyone feel better. But it’s incredibly difficult to motivate someone with depression to exercise. While the contact with the birds is something that, perhaps, is feasible “.
Artist Michael Smythe, of Nomad Projects, who helped King’s College London develop the smartphone app for the studio, added that the research also raised questions about the link between health inequalities and access to nature, with other research showing that deprived areas often had fewer green spaces than affluent areas.
Nomad Projects co-founded the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve Trust, which built a pond last summer that Smythe said attracted “an enormous diversity of birds.”
“It is a very complex, biodiverse and very therapeutic space within a huge residential complex between four thoroughfares,” said Smythe. “Now it’s a place where people go to mass every day just to relax.”
Adrian Thomas, the author of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ Guide to Birdsong, said the report’s findings came as no surprise as most people described their reaction to birdsong as joy.
He added: “Bird singing would once have been the natural soundtrack of all human lives and I think it’s rooted somewhere deep in our psyche. It is associated with spring, renewal and the arrival of good times, which is just one of the reasons why we must face this crisis of nature and ensure that nature does not remain silent. “