How birding connects to mindfulness

How birding connects to mindfulness

Three meditators and leaders discuss how birding helps them connect to nature and focus on the present—and how you can do it too.

February 08 2023 Jillian Anthony

Whitney Falk, Flying Colors cofounder, ZZ Driggs cofounder and CEO

I come from a family of birders, and for much of my life I have taken part in refilling feeders and trays of seeds, nuts, and berries in order to connect with and witness the flying colors that surround us.

My birding practice started with my grandmother when I was very young. She had such patience in birding and I can remember sitting at her circular dining table which overlooked her backyard and a bluff leading down to Lake Huron in Michigan. The bird baths were always filled with special creatures and I can remember just drinking a glass of milk slowly over time and sitting at that table with her, silently watching the birds together.

In the pandemic, my fiance [Flying Colors cofounder Matthew Brimer] and I picked up some feeders to give ourselves a little visual treat during lockdown, and once again these same feelings crept back in, that of enjoyment, yet relaxation and calm.

Birding is undoubtedly one of my favorite forms of mindfulness. I find it uplifting for my spirit just as much as running, biking, and meditating. There is something so serene about witnessing these creatures in their daily goings-on and seeing their paths of freedom and agency. Seeing the birds enter and exit the feeders and continue about their days resonates and calms me, as they are on their own missions, just like us, yet (I like to think) with less of the anxieties that might affect us humans. Witnessing and simply watching the birds then alleviates my own anxieties and tensions.

The very act of waiting and watching is in itself a tenet of mindfulness. Letting your mind rest and just be still while you wait for a creature you have no control over to flutter and land in front of you in some vista gives the mind a break from its ‘monkey brain’ tendencies and allows you to just be.

Another joyful birding exercise is to listen to your favorite birdsongs. Start with just one or two—like the ever-present Blue Jay’s “jeer, jeer, jeer” in the Northeast.

A friend of mine wakes up very early, before the sun rises, and waits to hear the first birdsong in the morning. Isn’t that so gorgeous to think about? I would like to try this, but admittedly I love to sleep in and haven’t had the discipline for this yet.

In the mornings I have my two dogs to walk. We all enjoy this time outside and appreciate the refresh that it brings. The very fact that nature brings so much joy, respite, excitement, and calm to so many different species in my mind solidifies its sanctity and importance for all of us. There is a quote that goes, “Nature is cheaper than a therapist,” and I couldn’t agree more!

Whitney’s mindfulness resources:

Jesse Israel, The Big Quiet founder, meditation teacher

Jesse IsraelA lot of my work is mindfulness, slowing down, finding and embracing quiet, and this world of noise that we live in. A really big component to how I help myself feel better and more alive in my personal life and how I help others feel the same way is by finding moments—even if we live in urban areas—to be present to nature, because my belief is that there’s so much healing [to be found there].

It’s so easy to not pay attention because of whatever is distracting us from our lives. But when we intentionally slow down and notice the colors, the sounds, the shapes, the movements of birds, it’s a great direct hit back into nature.

We started to get more into birding over the pandemic when I was spending time with my parents and they set up little bird feeder in the back, and the colors, the shapes that were coming in and spending time in our backyard was such a great way to instantly plug back into that the power nature.

A really beautiful practice for bringing mindfulness into focus is to find a place to sit when you’re outdoors and have your bare feet touching the earth. This works in sand, grass, dirt. Close the eyes and just notice the feeling of the skin of your feet touching the Earth’s surface. There are electrons that move from the Earth’s surface into the body’s skin, and there’s all sorts of benefits that come from that connection. See if you’re able to notice a shift in your system. Then move your attention to your sense of hearing, and see if you can tune into the sounds of any birds. As you’re hearing the sounds of the birds, open the eyes, and take in their movements and colors, take in their personalities, really lean into the sense of sight.

What I find from this simple practice is an instant connection with nature. I think that surrendered approach to just being in nature and having the experience that nature is going to provide for us, is actually a great parallel for how we can live our lives—when we can let go of the tight grip and the things we’re always trying to control, and to instead open to that spontaneity and the surprises and the unknowns and the little gifts and magic that life can bring us. And I really think that that’s embodied in the practice of birding.

Jesse’s mindfulness resources: 

  • Through my work The Big Quiet we do mass meditation events. We also do online courses, and have an online community where we train people to learn how to practice meditation on their own.
  • I recommend the 1 Giant Mind app. This is a great, free app to get people into a daily practice.

Ally Bogard, yoga and meditation teacher

Ally Bogard
Photo Credit: Chloe Crespi

I have been a yoga and meditation teacher for over 15 years. I have run teacher trainings and personal development programs throughout the world, and also coach, mentor, and write. My approach to practicing mindfulness is simple: do it. Keeping things simple, being aware of the elegance and beauty all around, and being in my body in the moment as many times as I can remember is my equation.

In my 20s and early 30s I was very involved with outdoor sports. Whitewater kayaking, backcountry skiing, climbing, mountaineering and anything else outside was the gateway to my freedom and my sanity. I felt everything one would ever need to learn about life and what is meaningful could be learned from simply being on a river. Spending time on relatively extreme expeditions throughout the world, one learns the teachings of mindfulness fast. Complete absorption in the moment, deep embodiment, and keeping all senses open and available were usually the difference between a successful trip and a not-so successful one.

I now find an incredible amount of delight in spending time in nature in slow and peaceful ways and having my attention, mindfulness, and presence happen gently, without so many life-or-death repercussions. My mental health depends on nature as I am very empathic, can be quite concerned with how other people are feeling, and can get quite up in my mind. Being out in nature—where it asks us to be nothing other than who we are, while it feeds us pure life force—is a non-negotiable part of my mindfulness, mental health, and overall wellbeing.

I spent most of the pandemic in South Africa on a wildlife conservation. Birding is everything in the bush, not only for the natural awe and beauty, but for the levels of communication you can learn about the land, the wildlife and the surroundings when birds are near—like specific calls alarming for snakes, or changing flight patterns indicating weather. Birds are not only extraordinarily beautiful, but can show us so much about our surroundings if we are willing to observe, listen, and pay attention to the call of the wild, which I feel is always attempting to communicate deeper truths to us.

The most mindful and wise teachings about birding is to hold absolutely no desired outcome for what you are going to see. Practice patient presence while waiting for birds to arrive is as much a part of the process as finding the birds themselves. Often when we are wanting to see something in nature, our mind is happy when things arrive, we feel special, and like we have accomplished something; and when nothing appears, we can feel down, as if it was an “off’ birding experience. Let the patient observation, the coming and going, the excitement and mundanality of the process all be welcome, delightful, and captivating. Anything can bring us into greater presence, connection and awareness if we are willing to release agenda—even the agenda of the bird you hope you see.

Ally’s mindfulness resources:

Photo Credit: Yannic Läderach (via Unsplash)