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The power of bird song

The RSPB’s Amy Morrison tells the story of a very personal connection

Benefitting mind and body

Have you ever found yourself listening to birdsong and just felt happier and more content? To the blackbird its beautiful song will be anything from an invitation for a mate to come closer or a threat to a rival to back off – but to our ears it is a sign that things are just right in the world.

In our busy modern lives, we often overlook the importance of our connection to nature, or only see something as pure and uplifting as the song of a nightingale through the words of Keats.

But we shouldn’t forget that bird song has some very important and personal benefits to your physical and mental health.

RSPB staff Amy Morrison

Healing notes

Waking up to the sound of birds outside my window was a staple of my childhood.

I was an early riser, and I loved waking up with the birds. I would lean out of my window and just watch them and listen to their songs. No other part of my day was as peaceful as this. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you the names of all these birds, I probably still couldn’t, but I loved them all the same.

As I grew up the birds became the background noise of my life, but unfortunately you don’t know what you’ve got until its gone.

One researcher I met told me that his recent findings showed that feeling connected to nature was as influential on our happiness as being married.

Struggling with my mental health

Throughout my teenage years I started to feel depressed and anxious. My mental health deteriorated, and nature became a haven for me. When my parents split up and I moved to a new house, I needed nature more than ever. To my surprise though, instead of waking up to the blissful notes of birds (or the quiet coo of a wood pigeon) I awoke to silence that was briefly interrupted by the whoosh of a car. It felt odd, like a soundscape out of a dystopian future where nature had fallen silent.

It was hard to cope with my negative thoughts and feelings in the silence. All my problems felt bigger and unmanageable. I realise now that this was because my reminder that I was part of something far greater than myself – the birds - had vanished. No longer could I easily see how I was part of nature and the world around me. I felt alone and disconnected. Sure, this wasn’t just because I couldn’t hear bird song anymore, a lot was happening in my life. However, the lack of bird song made it so much worse; the little ray of sunshine in my life had gone.

Bringing back the birds

Once I had noticed the birds had gone, I wanted to find a way to bring them back. At first, I started by listening to Radio Birdsong each morning, until it was pulled from the air (so you can imagine my joy when the RSPB recently launched RSPB Birdsong Radio). Then I would go out into nature and appreciate all the wonderful sounds around me. As I now knew how important nature was to me and that I could see it was in trouble, I would never take it for granted again.

As my mental health improved and I started to realise how nature is in trouble, I knew I needed to do more to save it, and that is how I ended up working at the RSPB. I first started working here looking at the health benefits of nature for people, and the importance of people feeling connected or a part of nature. It is a fascinating area and learning about how important nature is for us was eye-opening. Knowing the benefits for people also helped explain to people why we needed to save nature.

Why nature matters

More and more researchers are now looking at the health benefits of nature, and these are wide-ranging. Here are just a few:

  • Reduction of high blood pressure – by supporting relaxation and increasing physical activity.
  • Reduction of stress levels – through mindfulness and potentially the chemicals and bacteria in our environment
  • Improved immune system functioning – through chemicals and bacteria in our environment and the reduction of stress, which supports the immune system
  • Reduction in allergy symptoms – through chemicals and bacteria in our environment
  • Support for the digestive system – through bacteria in our environment interacting with the bacteria in our digestive tract (gut microbiome)
  • Improved levels of wellbeing
  • Reduced feeling of loneliness

One researcher I met told me that his recent findings showed that feeling connected to nature was as influential on our happiness as being married.

For me though, I don’t need the evidence to show that bird song is good for us because I felt the loss of it, and I don’t want to live in a world where I would never hear it again.

Bird song medicine

Research into the benefits of bird song is relatively new so there isn’t much to go on. However, the studies that are out there indicate that bird song helps people relax and improves their mood. Even more research has shown that natural sounds support people’s mental health and they are often used to help block out sounds that are known to negatively impact on people, such as roads.

For me though, I don’t need the evidence to show that bird song is good for us because I felt the loss of it, and I don’t want to live in a world where I would never hear it again, or would have to trek miles in order to hear it. I’ve also seen people who were really struggling with their mental health, maybe even dealing with delusions or paranoia, just calming down as the sweet melody of nature’s singers would hit the stage. As mental health problems increase across the UK, I think a world without bird song could just make this even worse. So, whilst I hope more evidence can come out to convince everyone else that we need to keep the birds singing, I don’t want to wait around until it is too late for us to act.

Let Nature Sing

This is how I ended up working on the Let Nature Sing campaign. Even the name of it resonates through me, like a call to arms. I believe that together we can show the world that as a nation we won’t let nature fall silent.

We will make sure that our land is used so that it supports our wonderful nature. We will make sure that our farmers are paid to look after our wildlife and this planet. We will make sure that businesses are supported and encouraged to work in ways that supports nature now and well into the future. We will make sure our governments do all they can to protect this little bit of earth that we and thousands of species call home.

We will Let Nature Sing.

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