Seven years ago I knew nothing about birds and was burning my urban candle fiercely at both ends.
One day I saw a poster for a ‘Dawn Chorus Guided Walk.’
My friend might like that, I thought….
4:30 am on an April morning, groggy from wine and chat the night before, we followed our guide past ponds and reed-beds. We stopped among trees on the edge of a lake - the water glinted metal-grey in the half-light and the guide told us to stand still and listen. I was aware of the first planes to Heathrow overhead and wind rustling the trees. I could hear my breathing, was aware of the other people around me and grinned at the absurdity of the situation. Then, from one side, a bird started to sing. It was so close I turned towards it - I could tell exactly in which tree and how high up it was - even though I couldn’t see it. The song stopped, then it came again and I was aware of a sort of similarity – not a tune, exactly, but the register and pitch were the same. It was a strange mix of strident and gentle, sure of itself yet ending with a plaintive fade-out. Then I turned as a different song began from another tree - this sound slightly deeper and with greater variance - I thought that it had a different mood – more cheerful? 'That’s a robin and a blackbird' said the guide. I knew robins from The Secret Garden and Christmas cards and blackbirds from Morning Has Broken… but I had never thought about the sounds these birds make. I listened again and struggled to differentiate between the two songs, like new languages going too fast for me to follow. Other birds started to join in and the chorus became a pleasant, unidentifiable jumble until the guide added the ‘tee-cher, tee-cher’ call of a great tit and the trill of a wren to my bird vocabulary. These last two were uniquely different sounds I could isolate from the general chorus, but by the end I still couldn't differentiate between robins and blackbirds. Oh well, I thought. It was a nice walk.
Photo credit Birdspot.co.uk
A few days later I saw a robin near my house. I stood and watched it to see if it would sing and if I could recognise the song. Robins frighten less easily than most birds and will meet your stare with shiny-bead eyes, head on one side. Sure enough, this robin stayed and sang. I watched its chest rise and fall and could match the cadences of the sounds with the opening and closing of its beak, which was beautifully intimate. Over the next days I looked for robins and blackbirds every time I went outside and suddenly their songs diverged, bringing my grand repertoire to 4.
Before I could get to 5 came the day that changed everything. I was deeply unhappy in my job; sleep-deprived, angry, unable to eat, working 80 hours a week and trying to make sense of it all in therapy. One day, on my lead-footed commute with eyes on the pavement, anticipating nothing good, I became aware that there was a blackbird ‘over there’, which I couldn’t see but could hear clearly over the noise of rush-hour. First I was pleased to notice it, then I was struck by experiencing two realities; one of grim exhaustion and another of peace, calm and a sort of reassuring indifference. That bird was there, singing, oblivious to me and I had been oblivious to it until its sound permeated my dreary thoughts. And I found it with my ears, not my eyes... As I compared the two realities I could feel that each one did totally opposite things to my mind. One brought dark, the other brought light and now I knew a way to leave the dark.
So that weekend, not quite so early, I retraced the route of the dawn walk.
If you’ve ever walked through reeds, you will know the special ‘sshhh’ sound they make when ruffled by breeze. Standing alone in swaying, green stems which reach so tall I have to look up to see the sky is my favourite imprinted memory. In autumn, when the reeds turn gold and low sun glints through them, I always think of bronze-age people who worked reed beds and would have seen the same view - and I wonder if it was beautiful to them too.
That weekend I spent hours walking in the reeds and through the trees, practicing my four bird songs and being acutely aware that I felt better. I kept stopping to breathe, taking great gulps of sky, reeds, air and space. I heard all four of ‘my’ bird songs and – number 5 - learned the explosive, sci-fi challenge of a Cetti’s warbler. As I left for home, I realised I had been so immersed in actively listening for birds and trying to identify them, that all my other thoughts had stopped for a while. I felt refreshed and reassured – I knew I could come back here every weekend, like a lifeline.
Even on the streets, listening for birds and learning to find them I could keep other things at bay. I kept listening and heard birds everywhere. Two switches had been flipped - I was no longer bird-blind or bird-deaf – I had surround-sound and wide-screen vision. Bird World was now diluting Stress World and I was hooked.
Since then I have learned sounds of all the birds common to the places of my London life. I constantly bird-listen and my eyes follow the sounds I hear. My surround-sound system is set to BIRD all the time and it’s in intra-aural drip of calm and fun. I also left that job....
Why am I telling you about this?
Because distracting yourself with a different perspective reduces anxiety and makes you feel better. Fact.
Last time I described how Attention Restoration Theory and Stress Reduction Theory demonstrate that we can experience replicable, positive reactions to fatigue and stressors from engaging with nature – even just looking at pictures. However, further to this, I still wanted to know why bird watching and listening had a greater affect upon me than simply going for a walk. I found my answer in the idea of Directed and Involuntary Attention. (James, 1892, Kaplan R & Kaplan S, 1995)
Directed Attention (DA) means actively concentrating on responsibilities - such as work - to the exclusion of pleasant and effortless thoughts. DA often results in Directed Attention Fatigue (DAF). Involuntary Attention (IA) is effortless, fascinating and restorative. By focusing on something which you define as ‘not work related’ or ‘for fun’ you divert your brain and allow it to recover from fatigue. You will probably engage in it for hours and not want to stop. Essentially, that’s what having a hobby does for you.
So, find your hobby in nature and you experience restorative IA + ART + SRT.
Triple choc fudge brownie sundae for the mind and soul.
For your latest R-IA Bird-Listening Challenge:
Mind your dunnocks.
Dunnock. Photo credit: gardenbird.co.uk
This little bird is often confused with sparrows. It even used to be called a hedge sparrow but you can distinguish it from sparrows (tree and house) by its blue-grey head and front. Tree sparrows have a brown head, house sparrows have a grey head, both have a beige front. Sparrows chirrup and cheep - listen to hedges and pyracantha bushes - but the dunnock has a sweet, high-pitched warbling song which, at this time of year mingles with those of blackcaps, robins and wrens. I invite you to listen when you open your window or go for a walk – you will hear it. It is a common, yet rarely mentioned bird – small passerine birds which don’t have striking plumage are often dismissed as ‘little grey jobs’ and the dunnock definitely suffers from that. But, listen and look – if you see a group of sparrows or pass a garden full of sweet song check for blue tummies and maybe you have yourself a dunnock. Never again will you confuse them with sparrows or teacakes.
In the Guardian UK this week, Stephen Moss helpfully collated twenty common bird songs to help with your bird listening from home – including the dunnock. Have a listen, and discover what's singing outside right now.
All of the links are from the RSPB bird A-Z. The whole list comprises 268…. No rush
Resources and Further Reading
Kaplan R and Kaplan S (1995) The experience of nature: A psychological perspective.
Kaplan S. The restorative effects of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology,15,169-182. 27
James W (1892) Psychology: the briefer course. New York: Henry Holt.
Natural Thinking – a report for the RSPB by Bird, W. 2007.
Accessed online at http://ww2.rspb.org.uk/Images/naturalthinking_tcm9-161856.pdf August 22nd. 2019.