Look and Listen
Birding Improves Personal and Environmental Health
On any given morning, hundreds of Tucsonans equip themselves with binoculars, a field guide and a notebook to go for a walk in the parks and surrounding wilderness in search of birds. But what many consider a hobby may have tremendous environmental, physical and mental benefits.
Birding is the recreational activity, which many now consider a sport, of observing birds in their natural habitat while identifying and often recording what species are seen. Birding has been a popular pastime for ages, yet the steady growth of birding enthusiasts is drawing attention to the physical, mental and environmental benefits of this popular sport. Birding promotes healthy living by walking and hiking outdoors, encourages mindful interaction with nature through conservation and advocacy and fosters social connections with other like-minded enthusiasts.
Paul Green, executive director of the Tucson Audubon Society, suggests that the large variety of bird species in and around Tucson is a huge draw for the birding community. He explains, “There is a large variety of bird species that travel through Southeastern Arizona. Approximately 60 percent of U.S. bird species come through this 1 percent of land, so people are able to see a lot of different birds.”
Birding goes beyond simply observing different types of birds. “There are as many kinds of birders as there are birds,” Green muses. “There are those who have a scientific interest in finding, recording and categorizing a particularsubspecies of bird. Others are driven by their list. ‘Listers’ are keen on seeing as many birds as possible and checking them off their list. This can be rather competitive, while other people just enjoy being outside in nature. People just feel a lot better being out in nature.”
Being out in nature is one of the qualities birding associates with good health practices. Birders must get outside, which provides activity for the body, fresh air and sun, and engages the brain in ways indoor activities fall short. Patience is a key factor, says Green. “It’s not like seeing a bird on TV; when you go out birding you must be patient. Patience is a great virtue and if you’re lucky you may see the bird you’re looking for, and when you do, that reward is worth the wait.”
The time in-between sightings is rejuvenating in itself. Birders are often quiet when searching for species. They must maintain a keen ear to identify bird songs and for the more seasoned birder, the smaller sounds, like chirps or alarms. They must also maintain a watchful eye and the ability to spot certain colors in the trees or in the air as a bird takes flight. Each of these practices gives the brain reprieve from the focused attention that encapsulates most people’s day-to-day lives of work or school and rejuvenates the mind’s ability to focus. “Personally,” says Green, “I feel so much better after I go out birding. It clears the mind and restores focus.”
In addition to the physical and mental health benefits of birding, the birding community provides important environmental contributions as well. “Citizen science, in which birders note what they see and submit that information to local or national organizations, provides important data for charting bird species and populations.” Green suggests, “No individual scientist can collect a significant amount of species and population data, so when hundreds or even thousands of citizen scientists collect data, it provides more accurate information.” This information is recorded and can be used to determine if development projects may jeopardize the habitats of local and migratory birds, thus giving birders an active role in environmental protection.
“This leads to the advocacy aspect,” Green says. “We want to educate our politicians about the importance of these great areas and advocate for them on the policy level, and that is where we have a big job to do. In Tucson, we are fortunate to have a group of people on the City Council who are sensitive to that, but outside Tucson there is still a lot of work to do.”
With all the health and environmental benefits birding has to offer, it is easy to get started. The only equipment novice birders need is a decent pair of binoculars, a guidebook such as Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona, published by the Tucson Audubon Society and written by local bird enthusiasts, and a notebook to record their sightings.
“Birding is especially easy to get started in here in Tucson,” says Green. “The Tucson Audubon Society puts on more field trips and outings than many of the other chapters. The best way to learn how to bird is to go out with people that know more about it than you and pick it up from them.” Field trips range in rigor and proximity to Tucson, based on personal preference and the species of birds one hopes to see. The Tucson Audubon Society provides field trips ranging from urban settings with paved trails accessible for birders in wheelchairs or walkers, to moderate hikes into wilderness areas. All birders have to pay for is the cost of travel. The Tucson chapter provides weekly outings and large-scale trips listed on their website at TucsonAudubon.org.
Tanner Jones is a teacher, environmentalist and freelance writer, located in Tucson.