A swallow may not make a summer, but seeing or hearing birds improves mental well-being, researchers have found.
The study, led by scientists at King’s College London, also found that daily encounters with birds boosted the mood of people with depression, as well as the general population.
The researchers said the findings suggest that visits to places with abundant birds, such as parks and canals, could be prescribed by doctors to treat mental illness. They added that their findings also highlight the need for better environmental protection and biodiversity enhancement in urban, suburban and rural areas to preserve bird habitats.
The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, tracked 1,292 participants’ daily encounters with birds last year through a smartphone app called Urban Mind.
Over two weeks, participants from the UK, Europe, US, China and Australia were asked at random intervals to record how they were feeling, including whether they were happy or stressed, whether they saw trees, and whether they saw or heard birds.
The researchers found that participants’ average mental well-being scores increased when they saw or heard birds, including among those who disclosed that they had been diagnosed with depression.
This beneficial effect continued beyond the moment of the bird encounter, with higher levels of mental well-being reported by participants who did not see or hear birds the next time they recorded their mood.
However, this positive effect did not hold if participants did not encounter birds during their subsequent mood assessment, which the researchers say indicates “a possible causal effect of bird life on mental well-being.”
Andrea Meccelli, Professor of Early Intervention in Mental Health at King’s College London, said: “We need to create and maintain environments, particularly urban environments, where bird life is a constant feature. To have a healthy bird population, you also need plants, you also need trees. We need to support the whole ecosystem in our cities.”
He added that the positive effect of bird encounters on people with depression is significant because many “interventions that help so-called ‘healthy people’ do not work for people with mental health problems.”
Mecheli said: “We know that exercise makes everyone feel better. But it’s incredibly challenging to motivate someone with depression to exercise. While contact with the birds is something that may be feasible.
Artist Michael Smythe of Nomad Projects, which helped King’s College London develop the smartphone app for the study, said the study also raised questions about the link between health inequalities and access to nature, with other research showing poor areas often have less green space than rich areas.
Nomad Projects co-founded the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve Trust, which built a lake last summer which Smythe says has attracted “a huge variety of birds”.
“It’s a very therapeutic complex, a biodiverse, abundant space within a massive housing complex between four arteries,” Smythe said. “Now it’s a place where people go to mass every day just to relax.”
Adrian Thomas, author of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ Guide to Birdsong, said the report’s findings were no surprise as most people describe their response to birdsong as joy.
He added: “Bird song would once be the natural soundtrack to all human lives and I really think it’s embedded somewhere deep in our psyche. It’s associated with spring and renewal and the coming of good times, which is just one of the reasons why we need to tackle this natural crisis and make sure nature doesn’t fall silent.”