A greenfinch perches on a single branch.

Research by Dr Eleanor Ratcliffe found that most people considered the sound of greenfinch, dunnock and blackbirds mentally restorative. Image © Mopsgesicht via Needpix.

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How listening to birdsong can transform our mental health

In a recent survey conducted by the Museum, 73% of people reported hearing louder birdsong during the COVID-19 lockdown in the UK.

Many said it comforted and calmed them at a time of crisis - and research shows it really could help improve our mental health. 

Birdsong appeared to be louder during the UK's lockdown due to a decline in man-made noise.

While it is pleasant to listen to, could something bigger be going on inside our brains when we hear tweeting and singing from parks and gardens?

Dr Eleanor Ratcliffe, a lecturer in environmental psychology at the University of Surrey, looked at how bird sounds may restore attention and alleviate stress.

Eleanor says, 'I was inspired to do this research because of an opinion piece in the Guardian by Pete Brash. He was speculating on how bird sounds might help people through the darkest days of winter.'

The first of her three studies consisted of an online test with 174 British residents listening, rating, and commenting on 50 different bird sounds from the UK and Australia.

The research found some bird sounds offered relief from mental fatigue and stress. This depended on the type of bird and what respondents associated it with.

For example, one participant found the gentle sound of chickens comforting following stress. It reminded her of when she would dig in the garden and her chickens would gather around, waiting for her to throw slugs at them.

Another participant associated the sound of wood pigeons with long, hot summers during her childhood which prompted feelings of enjoyment.

However, some bird sounds can also have the opposite effect. For example, pigeons in cities can be perceived as an annoyance and hearing their sounds could provoke a sense of irritation.

Cultural perception also played an important role. One participant associated owls with superstition, fear and death, however in many cultures' owls are revered, symbolising wisdom, intelligence, and endurance.

A wattlebird stands on the edge of a bird bath.

Australian birds were included in the test for novelty. The sound of red wattlebird, Australian raven and silver gull scored the lowest which means they were the least likely to help with restoring focus and reducing stress. Image by Needpix.

Levels of mental restoration also depend on the type of sound made by a bird.

For example, the melody of a songbird was well-received as it sounded musical and pleasant.

However, the call of a magpie generated stress as it was loud and raucous which reminded some participants of intentional aggression.

Other factors that affect how restorative birdsong is included sound level, frequency, complexity, pattern and familiarity.

Eleanor says, 'People like listening to bird sounds which are quiet, high frequency or have a level of complexity such as a melody.

'If bird sounds are loud, non-melodic, rough, simple or boring, people find them unpleasant or stressful.'

The type of person listening to the bird sound also influences the outcome. Those who appreciated nature benefited the most whereas those who preferred to remain indoors or were noise sensitive felt an indifference or had a negative response.

While bird sounds can be helpful for mental health, it depends on the bird, the sound it is making and the type of person who is listening to it.

This means that if birdsong were to be used to help with mental health therapy, it would need to be tailored to individuals.

Why does some birdsong have a restorative effect?

There are a couple of theories as to why nature has a healing effect on us.

The first looks at evolution and proposes that humans have a genetically built-in preference for nature, having spent thousands of years roaming the wilderness before constructing towns and cities.

Environments that contain resources such as water, plants, and animals are places where we feel best as they indicate that we can thrive.

Hearing birdsong signals life is already present in an area, and depending on the type of sounds made, implies safety. 

A herd of deer rest amongst tall, yellow grass.

Deer at Richmond Park in London. There can be a surprisingly large amount of nature in urban areas. Image by Architypist2/wiki (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The second theory considers how our brain processes information and focuses on certain tasks.

For example, think about ignoring colleagues having a conversation while you work in a shared office. The longer you do it, the more mentally fatigued you become.

The theory suggests nature helps us overcome tiredness as it is an easy, and often pleasant, thing to focus on. It gives us a break from other cognitive challenges in the environment, allowing us to replenish the energy we have lost.

Proof of nature's influence on mental health and wellbeing

There is growing evidence that shows spending time in nature can help with mental health overall.

One popular paper written by Roger Ulrich in 1984 looked at how a view of nature from a hospital room could affect a patient's recovery rate.

As a teenager, Ulrich suffered from kidney disease and spent a lot of time in his bedroom. He noted that the pine tree he could see out of his window helped him get through his worst days by banishing feelings of gloom and prompting positivity instead.

Later in life, he questioned 'which groups of people experienced a lot of emotional duress and might benefit from a view of nature?'

This formed the basis of the research, 'View through a window may improve recovery from surgery'. The study found those with a nature view required weaker pain relief medication and fewer dosages after surgery. They also had a shorter length of stay in hospital.

Ulrich's research supported the initial theory that nature reduced stress.

This has been validated by multiple other research projects since and has altered the way hospitals are built.

Eleanor says, 'Through my research on restorative potential of birds sounds, I was able to show that bird sounds can create similar relaxing experiences as seeing nature or going for a nature walk.

'I was able to find out how different properties of sounds create the link between sound and wellbeing.'

Eleanor's research is one of the numerous new studies which supports Ulrich's findings.

Small potted plants stand on a window sill.

Growing plants at home is a great way of bringing nature indoors. Image by Pikist.

Interacting with nature improves memory functions, reduces depressive symptoms, and enhances creative abilities.

It also diminishes feelings of isolation by making us feel more connected with the world.

Nature provokes a sense of curiosity and wonder, and fosters a sense of value for ourselves, others, and the world - all of which helps us live more meaningful lives.

Spending time in nature makes us feel more grateful of all the benefits it offers us and instils an urge to protect it.

With the rapid decline of biodiversity worldwide, exponential rate of plastic pollution and climate change looming over us, this is important now more than ever.

How can we reconnect with nature?

Walking in the park, bird watching, gardening, fruit picking and feeding animals are just a few easy ways of interacting with nature.

The key is to use all of our senses to notice nature around us. This may seem difficult in large, built up cities but nature usually finds a way of interweaving itself into the environment.

This could be a potted plant on a cracked windowsill, the smell of wet earth after the rain or a birdsong carrying in the wind.

Eleanor says, 'Noticing things in the environment is related to positive psychological outcomes and has received attention in mindfulness literature.

'Being actively involved in nature experiences can increase connection to these places and create bonds with environments that can be revisited again and again.'

Four dogs on leashes sitting on the pavement.

Cleaning up after your dog during a walk can be a way of taking care of nature. Dog poop can be toxic to the environment as it contains a high amount of nitrogen and phosphorus, and can burn the ground it is on, as well as cause problems with local water supply. Image by PxHere.

Helping to keep natural spaces litter-free by volunteering to clean up your local green space or beach is a great way of getting involved, giving back and making a difference.

Research shows altruism has a number of positive effects on mental health, including boosting happy hormones, instilling a greater sense of purpose and helping us feel more connected with the world.

Ecotherapy is a form of therapeutic treatment led by a trained professional. It involves doing activities in nature and aims to improve your mental health through a series of exploratory activities in nature.

Modern lifestyle may have distracted us from all the fascinating ways nature replenishes us, but it's not too late to reconnect and enrich our existence in this world.