Merker Lecture: Birding to Better Health

Photo courtesy of Stephen Schneider

Photo courtesy of Stephen Schneider

On Wednesday, March 15, noted birder and environmental educator Holly Merker gave a lecture titled “Ornitherapy: For your mind, body, and soul” to an audience in Prosser Auditorium and on Zoom. 

“Ornitherapy is a devoted practice using birds as guiding light to a happier and healthier life,” said Merker. Birds act as our gateways into nature, she explained, distracting us from the cares of our daily lives. When we are out in nature, we just enjoy the scenery; we don’t worry about all our responsibilities back home. Nature is a non-judgmental place, Merker said: we don’t have to do anything in particular and so don’t experience the stress we’re constantly under elsewhere.

And when we do venture into nature our brains are activated. That’s because humans are still animals at our core and feel most at home in natural spaces, which are our first homes, said Merker. In that sense, we truly are a part nature and find what we need there. 

Nature itself has many healing properties. But places in nature with birds are be able to do even more for our health, Merker said. Birds are heart-healthy for everyone. Merker cited studies showing that simply observing birds in nature lowers our heart rates and adrenaline levels. 

Other studies show that viewing birds also decreases levels of cortisol, the hormone that sends our bodies into overdrive. And less cortisol means bird watchers experience less stress and anxiety, said Merker.  

And it’s easy to do. “The best part of all, is that those people, people like us, don’t have to know anything about what we’re looking at,” said Merker. “We don’t have to go out and identify [birds]. We don’t even have to know that they’re there, just that they’re around us. Those people can benefit from these experiences.”

Merker mentioned the many ways we can practice what she calls “mindful birding.” One of the simplest is to listen to their chirping and singing.

With more people getting involved in birding and more people starting to see the benefits of it, the healthier people can be. The experience of ornitherapy is so positive that doctors are starting to recommend that people spend some time in nature in order to heal themselves. “Doctors in Canada, particularly in British Columbia, are working in partnership with Canadian national parks so that doctors can write prescriptions to patients who are experiencing baseline anxiety or heart disease or high blood pressure in order to go out and have experiences in national parks as part of their prescription plan,” Merker said.

Todd Reedy, a sophomore environmental science major, found the lecture eye-opening. “It really helped me get a better understanding of how into it you can be with every working part of nature,” he said.

Aidan Kleckner, also an environmental science major, agreed. “As an avid birder I really enjoyed  [Merker’s] presentation as well, because it was enlightening on what you can do to use birding as a therapy personally.”