The feeding of garden birds is a popular and accessible means of connecting with wildlife in urban environments in the United Kingdom. Past research has found that the main motivations for feeding birds are psychological benefits, concern for bird welfare, and connecting to nature. This study explores whether a brief birdwatching activity impacts on wellbeing, anxiety, and nature connection. One hundred and fifty-six participants took part in a birdwatching activity, identifying the species that entered their garden during a thirty-minute period. Participants were randomly allocated to the ‘joy’ group, who rated their feeling of joy on seeing each species, or the ‘count’ group, who counted the number of birds of each species. Measures of wellbeing, state anxiety and nature connection were completed before and after the observation period. Both groups had improved wellbeing, anxiety, and nature connection, though decreases in anxiety were greatest for those in the joy group. These results suggest that activating a sense of joy heightens the psychological benefits of watching garden birds. These benefits and the strengthening of nature connections highlight the reciprocal relationship between humans and birds and the importance of actions towards healthy, sustainable urban ecosystems.
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Birds are one of the most visible forms of wildlife in urban areas. While recent figures are not available, a decade ago it was estimated that more than half of all urban households in the United Kingdom put out food for birds in the garden (Davies 2012). Although the practice is encouraged by conservation and birding groups in the UK, rates of feeding are not dissimilar in countries such as Australia and New Zealand, where feeding birds is actively discouraged by wildlife organisations (Chapman 2015; Galbraith et al. 2014; Jones 2011, 2018). Despite growing recognition of the risks of disease transmission (Lawson et al. 2018), and the possible negative impacts on biodiversity (Shutt and Lees 2021), the practice of feeding garden birds is clearly a popular and accessible means of connecting with nature in urban environments.
Research exploring why people feed birds has identified a range of motivations, but personal pleasure and bird welfare generally emerge as the two key drivers, alongside a desire to be close to nature (e.g., Chapman 2015; Clark et al. 2019; Cox and Gaston 20152016; Galbraith et al. 2014; Howard and Jones 2004; Jones 2011, 2018; Jones and Reynolds 2008; Reynolds et al. 2017). In their survey of urban bird feeders in the UK, Cox and Gaston (2016) found that most participants said watching birds made them feel relaxed and connected to nature. These feelings were stronger in those who reported noticing the birds for a greater proportion of the day, and who fed them regularly. Relatedly, Cox and Gaston (2015) found relationships between the number of species people could identify, their liking for birds, and feelings of being connected to nature. While the survey methodology does not allow for causation claims to be made, given the benefits of noticing nature it is likely that active noticing and engagement with birds could enhance the psychological benefits of their presence (Richardson et al. 2021a, b; McEwan et al. 2019).
In general, the sights and sounds of birds are viewed positively (Belaire et al. 2015) and experiencing birdlife is associated with enhanced wellbeing (Cox and Gaston 2016; Hammoud et al. 2022) and restoration (Ratcliffe et al. 2013, 2020; Zhu et al. 2020). Effects are greater in conditions of perceived species diversity (Cameron et al. 2020; Cox and Gaston 2015), and when people actively encounter birds (Cox et al. 2018). Hammoud et al. (2022) used real-time sampling via a smartphone app and found that reported mental wellbeing was greater when participants could see or hear birds, compared with not seeing or hearing birds. The effects on wellbeing were lasting, independent of the effect of seeing trees, plants or water, and were observed in people with depression as well as those without a mental health condition.
Birds tend to appeal to people for aesthetic reasons (Horvath and Roelens, 1991; Kellert 1985) and the more attractive a species is deemed to be, the more favourable the evaluations of it (Brock et al. 2017, Cox and Gaston 2015) found that Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) and Robins (Erithacus rubecula) were considered more visually appealing than Woodpigeons (Columba palumbus) and Magpies (Pica Pica) in their survey of residents in three English towns, and that songbirds were preferred over non-songbirds. Collins et al.’s (2021) North American study found that people prefer smaller birds over larger birds, and insectivores, aerial or bark foragers, over birds that forage on the ground. Birds with blue feathers (Collins et al. 2021; Frynta et al. 2010; Liskova and Frynta 2013; Liskova et al. 2015) and with colourful or contrasting plumages are generally preferred (Echeverri et al. 2020; Garnett et al. 2018; Schuetz and Johnson 2019; Stoudt et al. 2021). The acoustic and aesthetic properties of bird song predict their restorative potential (Ratcliffe et al. 2020). However, while there are some relations between physical characteristics and likeability, bird behaviour and socio-cultural factors play an important role in people’s evaluations of different bird species and potentially override assessments of individual qualities of species (Garnett et al. 2018).
The cultural aspects of likeability are particularly salient in cases of disliked species. For example, Bjerke and Ostdahl (2004) found that while small birds were the most liked animals among urban residents (more popular than cats, dogs, butterflies etc.), gulls (Larus), Carrion crows (Corvus corone), pigeons (Columba) and Magpies were more likely to be disliked than other animals. Reasons for dislike include the creation of noise or mess, and nesting in or on people’s houses (Belaire et al. 2015; Clergeau et al. 2001). In these instances, birds can be seen to have breached boundaries to transgress into human spaces. The increased inclination of some species to do this more than others leads to negative appraisals of them. Tracing the cultural evolution of pigeons into ‘rats with wings’ Jerolmack (2008) suggests that the widespread dislike of the species is related to cultural anxieties about disorder, uncleanliness, and disease, rather than any quality of the bird itself (see also Skandrani et al. 2014). As Moss (2011) suggests, when birds enter into ‘our’ spaces, they are often subjected to human moral codes. Whereas small, quiet and ‘friendly’ birds like Robins and tits are considered friends, others – such as Sparrowhawks (Accipiter nisus) - act in ways that upset moral sensibilities. Magpies and Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) are disliked for being ‘noisy, rackety birds, vulgar and aggressive’ (Mynott, p 59, in Moss 2011). In an interview study, Ratcliffe et al. (2013) found that people made sharp distinctions between birds based on their songs and noises, with Crows and Magpies considered raucous and harsh.
Cox et al. (2018) suggest songbirds and woodpeckers, who are generally attractive and bring pleasure to people, offer cultural services in the form of wellbeing and connection to nature, whereas genera such as gulls, pigeons and corvids, are considered to bring disservices through their association with disease transmission, pollution, and damage to property. In a study of attitudes towards ten ‘pest species’ in the UK, Baker et al. (2020) found that gulls and pigeons were ranked as third and fourth worst, after wasps and rats. These scores were more strongly related to beliefs about the problematic nature of each species than they were related to personal experience. For instance, while 10% of respondents had personal problems with pigeons, and even fewer had experienced direct problems with gulls, 40% believed they were a problem generally and used terms like ‘vermin’ or ‘pests’ to describe them.
Issues of likeability and aesthetics are part of a spectrum of emotional judgements that people make towards birds, and towards particular bird genera and species. As noted earlier, affective responses to birds and their behaviour are also central to people’s motivations for feeding birds and the pleasure they receive from watching and listening to them. Rich accounts of the role of emotions emerge in qualitative research, revealing the nature and strength of people’s emotional affiliation with birds (e.g., Chapman 2015; Clark et al. 2019; Curtin 2009; Lorimer 2008; Ratcliffe et al. 2013). Emotions can shape people’s behaviour in relation to feeding and caring for wild birds. For instance, Dayer et al. (2019) found that residents’ emotional responses to the observations they made of birds feeding in their garden (including the presence of predators) played a part in the decisions being made around bird feeding. In a North American study Larson et al. (2016) found that people’s core affect and emotional dispositions were more strongly correlated with management of invasive House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) than their motivations and beliefs about bird management and conservation. That is, people’s negative feelings and anger towards the birds mattered more than what they ‘thought’ about birds and human-wildlife relationships. Positive emotions may also shape behaviour - a recent study of gardeners found that those who reported feelings of joy in seeing pollinators were more likely to engage in pro-pollinator behaviour (Sturm et al. 2021).
While studies such as Cox and Gaston (2015; 2016) have identified relationships between levels of engagement with birds, wellbeing, and connection to nature, the specific role of emotional engagement with birds needs further exploration. As activation of emotions is one of the pathways to nature connectedness (Lumber et al. 2017), those who are noticing birds and experiencing feelings of pleasure when observing them may be more likely to develop closer relationships with nature more broadly, leading to increased well-being and nature-friendly behaviours. Intervention studies that have asked people to notice nature and their emotional or evaluative responses to it have found enhanced wellbeing and nature connection (e.g., Passmore and Holder 2017; McEwan et al. 2019; Richardson and Sheffield 2017).
This paper aims to explore whether observing and engaging emotionally with urban birds can benefit wellbeing and nature connection, and to establish the potential for development of this practice into a therapeutic activity. Based on the principles of positive psychology, a novel brief intervention was designed to promote positive emotions that could benefit psychological growth and wellbeing (Lim and Tierney 2022). Nature-based positive psychology interventions have potential to extend the benefits of positive emotional states by activating the additional wellbeing benefits of enhanced nature connectedness (Passmore and Holder 2017; Richardson and Sheffield 2017). The intervention proposed involves participants watching birds feeding in their garden for a period of thirty minutes and rating the joy felt for each species observed. The experience of joy was selected as the emotional response as it was considered to be a relatively accessible and ‘scalable’ positive emotion, whereas emotions like ‘awe’ are more difficult to rate out of ten or be considered on a bird-by-bird basis. To identify whether joy rating offers any benefits beyond the observation task, a control group watched, identified, and counted birds in an activity similar to that required for the UK’s Big Garden Birdwatch (BGBW) - an annual citizen science project in which people are asked to identify and count the birds they see in their garden over a one-hour period during a specified weekend. As an exploratory study we consider three independent and conceptually different outcome measures: state anxiety, wellbeing and nature connection. Given that some species of birds are more popular than others, we also examine whether species, and species characteristics,have an impact on outcomes.
The study sought to explore the following research questions:
Does ‘joy watching’ lead to better outcomes than counting birds?
Does bird species impact on joy ratings and outcomes?
Do species characteristics (size and colour) impact on joy ratings and outcomes?
The study was a 2 (group: joy, count) x 2 (time: baseline, post-intervention) mixed design. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups – the first were asked to rate their feelings of joy for each bird species observed, the second were asked to identify and count the highest number of individual birds seen for each species at any one time. Self-reported scores were measured at the beginning of the study and after the intervention using online survey tool Qualtrics.
A G*Power calculation was conducted and a sample number of 128–2 groups of 64 participants was determined to be required for this study (Faul et al. 2009). Participants, aged 18 and over and based in the UK, were recruited via social media platforms, the University of Derby Research Participation Scheme, and the Prolific participant recruitment website. Consent to recruit participants on Facebook pages such as The Self-Isolating Bird Club was granted by page moderators. Invitations to participate described the study as exploring the benefits of watching garden birds. A total of 156 participants completed the study. There was a gender bias, with 121 (78%) participants identifying as female, 34 (22%) as male, and 1 participant preferring not to say. Participant ages ranged from 18 to 80, with a mean age of 54.6 (SD = 17.8). Eighty-one people were in the joy condition, 75 were in the count condition. The mean baseline Nature Relatedness score as measured with the NR-6 (Nisbet and Zelenski 2013) was 4.16, SD = 0.58. Only 2.8% of participants said they never feed birds, while the rest fed at least once a week, with 79.3% feeding daily.
The study materials were provided online using Qualtrics. Participants were supplied with an information sheet and asked to give informed consent. A demographic questionnaire asked for age, gender identity, occupation, living situation, and normal bird-feeding practices. The short-form version of the Nature Relatedness scale (NR-6; Nisbet and Zelenski 2013) was used to assess baseline nature connection. Psychometrically validated scales were administered at Time 1 and Time 2 (immediately after taking part in the activity) and included measures of state anxiety (Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory – Short Form, STAI-SF), affect and well-being (Positive Affect and Wellbeing Scale – Short Form – PAWS - SF), and nature connection (a modified version of the Inclusion of Nature with Self (INS) scale). Participants were also provided with a bird feeding and identification guide.
Nature relatedness – short form
The six-item version of the Nature Relatedness scale (NR-6; Nisbet and Zelenski 2013) was used to measure the baseline nature connectedness of participants. The scale has good internal consistency and has high test-retest correlations. While it is less sensitive than other nature connection scales to the effects of brief nature interventions, it is useful for assessing trait-like properties of nature connectedness and comparing samples.
Spielberger state-trait anxiety inventory – short form
The six-item short form of the state measure of the twenty-item state anxiety inventory, STAI, was used to reduce burden on participants’ time. The STAI-SF combines anxiety-present and anxiety-absent questions and has been found to produce similar scores to the STAI-S, with good reliability and validity showing sensitivity to fluctuations in state anxiety (Marteau and Bekker 1992). Each anxiety-present term is scored on a Likert scale of 1 (‘not at all’) to 4 (‘very much’), with reverse scoring for anxiety-absent terms. Mean scores are multiplied by 20 to give a range between 20 and 80 allowing direct comparison to the STAI-S scale results, with scores between 50 and 80 considered to be related to ‘high anxiety’. Cronbach Alpha tests showed good reliability for the STAI-SF anxiety scale (α = 0.88).
Positive affect and wellbeing scale – short form (PAW-SF)
The Positive Affect and Wellbeing Scale – Short Form (PAW-SF) (Salsman et al. 2013) is a nine-item measure of participants’ sense of well-being, life satisfaction and their overall sense of purpose. Participants were asked to rate each of nine statements from 1 (“never) to 5 (“always”), with higher scores indicating greater self-reported well-being. The sum total gave a raw score of between 9 and 45.
Inclusion of nature with self scale (INS) (Schultz 2002)
The INS is a single-item measure of nature connectedness. Participants choose which of seven diagrams best represents their relationship with nature. Each of the diagrams are made up of two circles with one labelled as self and the other as nature. The first shows the circles separate and not touching, with diagrams 2–6 showing increasing overlap, and the 7th option showing self and nature as one. For this study, the scale question was modified from the original and participants were asked; “click the circle that best describes your relationship with birds and nature, how connected are you to the natural world”.
Species colour was measured using the number of biological primary colours (red, blue and yellow) in feathers, to explore relevance of perception-primacy of these colours (Anderson and Maier 2017). Dominant and salient colours were taken from the key identification text for each species on the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts’ websites. Where colour is sexually dimorphic, the male colouring was used. Wingspan measurements (taken from https://bto.org) was used as a measure of species size.
People responding to the invitation to take part followed a digital link that took them to the survey hosted on Qualtrics (2020) software. There they were presented with information about the study, followed by a consent sheet. Those wishing to take part indicated their consent with a tick box and were asked to create a unique identifier code that would allow their data to be deleted if they later chose to withdraw from the study. The demographic questionnaire followed, and participants were then directed to a feeding guide outlining what sort of food could be used to attract garden birds into their vicinity. They were asked to distribute food into an area they could see easily and to allow sufficient time (30 min was used as a guide) for garden birds to appear.
Participants were asked to place bird food in an area of their garden or local green space and wait for thirty minutes. During this waiting period they were asked to complete the first section of the survey, containing the measures of well-being, anxiety, and nature connectedness, and look at a bird identification guide produced by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), with illustrations of the top 10 garden birds. The participants were then randomly assigned using Qualtrics randomisation software to allocate them to one of two bird watching activities, where they were asked to note down then transfer to the survey. Both groups were asked to write down the name for each species spotted. Those in the joy group were asked to rate on a scale between 1 and 10 the level of joy each garden bird species brought them, while those in the count group were asked to “Count the birds that land in your garden or green space. To avoid double-counting, just record the highest number of each bird species you see at any one time – not a running total.”
The participants were reminded to return to the survey after 30 minutes of bird watching and were asked if they fed the birds prior to watching them. Following the period of observation, participants were asked to complete the STAI-SF, PAWS and INS scales again. Finally, a debrief statement was displayed giving details of the procedure to withdraw from the study, and contact details. Information regarding accessing psychological support was provided in case completing the wellbeing measures caused any discomfort for the participants.
As an exploratory study of the outcomes of a new approach (joy rating) with potential for development into treatment, there is no basis for knowing which outcome the new approach might influence, so outcome variables are treated as conceptually different and multiple univariate analysis is most appropriate (Huberty and Morris 1992). To investigate whether birdwatching improved wellbeing and nature connectedness, and whether the specific birdwatching task influenced amount of improvement, three 2 × 2 mixed ANOVAs were conducted, one for each of the dependent variables, with time point (before vs. after birdwatching) and condition (counting vs. rating for joy) as the within and between-subjects factors respectively. The dependent variables were wellbeing, state anxiety, and connection to nature.
The University of Derby Psychology Research Ethics Committee approved the study and consent procedure. All participants gave digital informed consent in lieu of a signature, this was by ‘tick box’ completion prior to the study’s commencement.
Does ‘joy watching’ lead to better outcomes than counting birds?
First of all, we examined the influence of the intervention on anxiety, wellbeing and nature connectedness. Table 1 provides means and standard deviations by condition and time point. There were significant main effects of time for wellbeing, F (1,154) = 0.42.85, Wilks’ Λ = 0.78, p < .001, partial η2 = 0.22, anxiety, F (1,154) = 0.74.49, Wilks’ Λ = 0.67, p < .001, partial η2 = 0.33, and nature connectedness, F (1,154) = 0.44.35, Wilks’ Λ = 0.78, p < .001, partial η2 = 0.22. All three outcomes improved between timepoints. There were significant interaction effects for the ANOVA on anxiety, F (1,154) = 6.17, Wilks’ Λ = 0.96, p = .014, partial η2 = 0.4. The interaction effects were not significant for the ANOVAs on wellbeing, F (1,154) = 0.57, Wilks’ Λ = 0.97, p = 45, partial η2 = 0, and nature connectedness, F (1,154) = 0.01, Wilks’ Λ = 0.1, p = 92, partial η2 = 0.
To investigate whether higher baseline levels of wellbeing, anxiety and nature connectedness were associated with higher joyfulness experienced when watching birds, a series of Pearson correlation analyses were conducted on baseline wellbeing, anxiety and nature connectedness scores and the mean joy rating that each participant gave to birds in their garden. Baseline levels of nature connection (using the INS) correlated significantly with mean joy ratings, r(81) = 0.39, p < .001. However, joy ratings were unrelated to baseline wellbeing, r(81) = 0.12, p = .28, and anxiety, r(81) = − 0.1, p = .36.
Does bird species impact on joy ratings and outcomes?
To establish whether the nature of the birds present in gardens influenced outcomes, three multiple regressions were performed, one for each of the three outcome variables, wellbeing, anxiety and nature connectedness. The predictors were the same in each regression: number of culturally ‘negative’ species (i.e. Carrion Crows, Rooks Corvus frugilegus, Jackdaws Corvus monedula, Magpies, Feral Pigeons Columba livia domestica, Stock doves Columba livia, Woodpigeons, all gulls), number of species that were in the top six most ‘joyful’ species (i.e. Goldfinches Carduelis carduelis, Robins, Blue tits, Great tits, Coal tits Parus ater and Long-tailed tits Aegithalos caudatus), total number of species, and mean joyfulness of species present (calculated based on the mean joyfulness ratings given by all participants). The dependent variables were change scores on each of the three outcomes. None of the models were significant, suggesting that these characteristics of birds did not significantly moderate improvements in outcomes. Similarly, a series of Pearson correlation analyses revealed no significant correlations between the average joy rating given to birds by participants and improvements (as measured by change scores) in wellbeing, anxiety and nature connectedness.
In order to investigate which bird species elicited the highest joy ratings from participants, the average joy rating for each species was calculated. Only species which had been rated for joy by ten or more participants were included in the analysis. Figure 1 presents means and 95% Confidence Intervals and Table 2 presents mean joy ratings for each species. Long-tailed Tits, Robins and Goldfinches had the highest joy ratings, with each having a mean rating of more than 8 out of 10. Interestingly, the small standard deviations for ratings of these species suggest that they were almost uniformly popular among participants. Carrion Crows, Magpies, and Woodpigeons had the lowest ratings. The attendant standard deviations and confidence intervals were relatively high which likely reflects lower numbers recorded and could also reveal that participants varied more in terms of how much joy these species induced. The lack of overlap between many of the higher rated species and lower rated species provides a highly conservative approach to establishing a significant difference between the joy ratings for each species (Schenker and Gentleman 2001). Therefore, the top eleven species can be seen to provide more joy than the woodpigeon, with the top four birds providing more joy than the bottom three, with the long-tailed tit highly likely to be the highest rated bird for joy.
Do species characteristics (size and colour) impact on joy ratings and outcomes?
To establish which factors underpin joy ratings, we first conducted a series of Pearson correlation analyses, at the level of each bird rated, between the joy ratings given to species and three species characteristics: wingspan, colourfulness and how common the species is in gardens (i.e. the mean count of the species during the RSPB’s 2021 Big Garden Birdwatch). Both wingspan, r(505) = − 0.41, p < .001, and colourfulness, r(505) = 0.23, p < .001, significantly correlated with joy ratings. The smaller and more colourful a species was, the more joy it brought. How common a species is in gardens did not significantly correlate with joy ratings, r(505) = − 0.02, p = .72.
To further investigate the relationships between joy and these three species characteristics, a hierarchical multiple regression was performed at the level of each bird rated. The dependent variable was the joy rating of the bird. The independent variables were the wingspan, colourfulness and how common the species is in gardens. Dummy variables were created for each participant to control for individual differences in joy ratings. The model containing only individual differences was significant, F(81,423) = 5.09, p < .001, Adjusted R2 = 0.4, as was the model containing all variables, F(84,420) = 9.56, p < .001, Adjusted R2 = 0.59. The R2 change between models was 0.16, p < .001. Wingspan was negatively related to ratings of joy, t = 11.26, B = − 0.04, β = − 0.41, p < .001. Colourfulness of species, t = 1.2, B = − 0.12, β = 0.04, p = 23, and how common the species is in gardens, t = 1.93, B = − 0.17, β = − 0.06, p = .05, were both unrelated to joy.
Watching garden birds is a simple, popular, and accessible activity, however, there is little empirical research into the benefits to people’s wellbeing and nature connectedness. This exploratory study set out to test the effects of a brief novel birdwatching task involving rating birds for feelings of joy. Findings showed that both counting birds and ‘joy rating’ had a modest positive impact on wellbeing and nature connection, with the decrease in anxiety being greater for those who rated joy compared to those who just counted birds. These results show the positive impact of watching birds and suggest that activating a sense of joy heightens the benefits bird watching brings, appearing to result in feelings of calm that reduce state anxiety. The findings support previous research that has found improved wellbeing from noticing nature and cultivating positive affect in relation to nature (McEwan et al. 2019; Passmore and Holder 2017; Richardson and Sheffield 2017; Sturm et al. 2020, 2021).
The positive impact of watching and identifying garden birds supports research that has found pleasure is a key motivation for feeding birds (Chapman 2015; Clark et al. 2019; Cox and Gaston 2016; Howard and Jones 2004; Galbraith et al. 2014; Jones 2018; Jones and Reynolds 2008), and extends this work by showing that specific psychological benefits can be observed empirically after a brief, focused bird observation period, with greater benefits gained when observers notice and rate feelings of joy. The experimental design and use of established measures of state anxiety, well-being and nature connectedness offer further weight and detail to Cox and Gaston’s (2016) finding that people report that seeing garden birds calms them and helps them feel connected to nature. A direct and measurable improvement in well-being and relationship with nature is evident after just thirty minutes of bird observation. Baseline levels of nature relatedness, as measured with the NR-6, were on average 28% higher than baseline rates among students, middle managers, and community populations (Nisbet and Zelenski 2013). This supports Chapman’s (2015) finding that birdwatchers had closer relationships with nature than other populations.
Consistent with research suggesting a preference for smaller birds (e.g., Bjerke and Ostdahl 2004; Collins et al. 2021), species with smaller wingspans brought greater ratings of joy. The larger birds accorded lower joy ratings have characteristics that are associated with being less well-liked – such as being generalist feeders (Charles and Linklater 2013) ground-feeding (e.g., Collins et al. 2021), and sounding less pleasant (Ratcliffe et al. 2013). These preferences and cultural factors can be observed in the joy ratings and confidence intervals, with larger birds scoring lower than smaller birds for example. While there was a moderate correlation between joy ratings and colour, with higher scores given to birds with more primary colours, this was not significant in the regression. The empirical focus of the research limits the numbers and it would be straightforward to run a ‘joy rating’ exercise to provide a much larger data set for analysis of this type. The species-dependent aspect of joy-ratings offer support for previous research showing differences in the likeability of birds, however, surprisingly there was no relationship between the number of less joy-inspiring birds and wellbeing, anxiety or nature connection measures. Although unexpected, it would appear that while significantly lower joy ratings were found for birds considered a ‘cultural disservice’ (Cox et al. 2018), these differences did not impact on the beneficial outcomes observed.
As an exploratory proof of concept study, there are a number of limitations. The intervention was short without a follow-up and participants were recruited from bird-related social media groups, such as the Self-Isolating Bird Club, resulting in a sample with high baseline levels of nature connectedness, established daily feeding practices, and likely to have a pre-existing appreciation of birds. The sample may have had awareness of the psychological benefits of watching birds (as research on motivations for bird feeding would suggest), be experienced at identifying birds, and have an established group of birds feeding at their feeding stations. Having an established group of birds could bring additional benefits of recognising birds as individuals, and opportunities to observe birds interacting with each other. It is not clear whether the same results would be achieved amongst people who feed less regularly or not at all, either due to their different expectations and attitudes, or because of the number and type of birds that could be seen in a half-hour period. Research has found improvements in nature connectedness are generally greatest amongst those with lower baseline levels (e.g. McEwan et al. 2019). However, the findings show that even for those that feed and watch garden birds, and have closer relationships with nature than most people, half an hour of focused observation results in measurable improvements in psychological wellbeing and nature connection. That is, the wellbeing and nature connection gains can be intensified after a period of sensory engagement and attention.
There was a strong gender bias, with over three-quarters of participants identifying as female. Similar gender biases have been observed in other nature connection intervention studies (e.g. McEwan et al 2019). Previous research on bird feeding in the UK found no gender differences in regularity of feeding (Clark et al. 2019), however more females than males have been found to take part in Big Garden Birdwatch (Cooper and Smith 2010). Clark et al. (2019) found that females are more likely to report being motivated by an interest in nurturing birds and educating children than males, which may have an impact on emotional responses to bird watching.
It was not possible to assess the accuracy of participants’ species identifications, however the margin of error is assumed to be equivalent with that of the Big Garden Birdwatch. It was hoped that with the guide provided, and focus on the most common garden birds, errors would be minimal. The nature connection measure used was an adapted version of the Inclusion of Nature in Self scale. While the INS is an established and reliable measure, the altered instructions introduce a confound between relationship to nature and relationship to birds, effectively asking for two different things. However, the response options of circles with ‘self’ and ‘nature’ were unmodified and may have helped address any ambiguity as to what response was sought.
Examination of species traits in relation to joy and outcomes was restricted to simple measures of wingspan and number of primary colours. As previous research shows, there are an extensive range of avian species traits that may impact on evaluations, with features such as size, colour, feeding behaviour, songs and calls, social characteristics, rarity, ecological value or risk status often overlapping (Echeverri et al. 2020). Examining these traits is methodologically challenging as it can be difficult to disentangle implicit and explicit judgements, or physical characteristics from cultural representations (Garnett et al. 2018). The use of male characteristics for coding is limiting, especially in relation to the sexually dimorphic chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs). However, as an exploratory study focused on testing the potential benefits of a novel intervention, simple trait measures allowed for initial examination of factors associated with joy ratings and outcomes.
In order to create distinct conditions, data was not collected about species abundance for both groups as the Joy group were only asked to rate and record each species rather than each individual bird. This prevented between-group comparison of garden bird abundance, as well as exploring the impact of number of birds seen on the dependent variables. As past research has noted greater improvements in wellbeing under conditions of perceived and actual biodiversity and abundance (e.g. Cameron et al. 2020), the impact of these factors on joy ratings and outcomes could be explored in future work.
Overall, the results suggest that a simple, brief bird-watching activity can result in lower anxiety, greater wellbeing, and increased connection to nature, with greatest benefits observed when people are prompted to engage emotionally. While the findings of this study suggest eco-psychological benefits of watching birds, they also contribute more broadly to research showing the importance of active engagement with nature. Spending time in nature can help us connect to it, but stronger and more enduring relationships are developed through paying attention to and engaging with the natural world (Richardson et al. 2021a; b). The value of actively engaging with nature has been evidenced in interventions, for instance, asking people to notice ‘good things in nature’ has been found to bring sustained increases in mental wellbeing and nature connectedness (Keenan et al. 2021; McEwan et al. 2019). The current study adds to this research by showing advantages of attending to positive emotions in nature experiences.
As an exploratory study, the findings suggest the potential for structured garden birdwatching activities to be used in promoting individual well-being, whether adopted within green social prescribing schemes, developed as an intervention, or used by individuals. The added benefits of the joy rating task suggest the importance of emotional engagement in the development of activities. Relatedly, by adopting the form of a citizen science activity, the findings contribute to research on the outcomes of citizen science projects. While evaluations tend to focus on knowledge and learning outcomes (Peter et al. 2019), the results of this study support research showing people are motivated to take part in citizen science projects by a desire to connect to nature (Vasiliades et al. 2021), and report psychological and emotional benefits from participating (Schuttler et al. 2018). In line with Sturm et al. (2021), the research suggests the importance of citizen science projects recognising and utilising people’s affective relationship with nature in supporting their participation. This may maximise the psychological benefits they gain from taking part, as well as supporting intention to engage in pro-nature conservation behaviour (Sturm et al. 2021).
Future research should include follow-up measures to ascertain sustained benefits and introduce repeated bird watching, each day for a week for example. It would be interesting to explore whether a period of focused bird observation, counting or rating feelings of joy, in a public green or blue space yields the same benefits. Parks and other urban spaces could set up feeding stations and/or plant for birds to increase bird presence and support focused observations. Given concerns about the potential negative impact of rates of garden bird feeding (e.g., Shutt and Lees 2021), it would be interesting to explore the impact of engaging in this activity without provision of food. A related question is whether those who actively watch birds and have a stronger connection to nature are more likely to keep feeders clean and consider more ecologically-oriented landscape and garden design to support avian habitats (Cerra and Crain 2016). Research could explore the extent to which focused bird watching supports awareness of urban ecosystems and actions towards protection and enhancement of urban biodiversity. Another area of future research would be to explore the impact of a range of emotional responses to watching birds. Fascination and awe would be similarly positive responses worth exploring and comparing, though it would be interesting to consider whether it is only positive emotions that predict increased nature connection and wellbeing. Perhaps it is emotional engagement in general, and recognition of nature’s emotional impact that helps to forge a greater sense of connection with the more-than-human world.
Although an exploratory study, the research highlights the benefits of simple engagement with garden birds. Moving beyond counting birds by rating them for the feelings of joy they evoke has been shown to reduce feelings of anxiety, showing potential for wellbeing interventions for self-management of mental well-being or use in green social prescribing. Feeding and watching garden birds is an activity that is easy, popular and accessible to anyone with access to a garden or outside space and does not even require leaving the house. ‘Joy-watching’ birds ensures positive rather than passive engagement and could be facilitated at workplaces, school grounds and on university campuses as part of wellbeing programmes. Garden birds bring pleasure and help people feel more connected to nature, but these benefits can be amplified by brief periods of focused attention, with additional benefits gained by considering the joy of birds. Beyond the benefits of an individual’s enhanced connection with nature and greater wellbeing, urban bird conservation relies on positive reciprocal feedback loops between humans and birds (Clucas and Marzluff 2011; Snep et al. 2016). Broader recognition of the value of birds for psychological wellbeing and for strengthening the relationship between humans and nature can contribute to efforts to mitigate the negative impacts of urbanisation, and support healthy, sustainable urban ecosystems.
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The research leading to these results was partially funded by Alpkit Foundation (https://alpkit.com/pages/foundation).
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White, M.E., Hamlin, I., Butler, C.W. et al. The Joy of birds: the effect of rating for joy or counting garden bird species on wellbeing, anxiety, and nature connection. Urban Ecosyst 26, 755–765 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11252-023-01334-y