When the world shut down in March of 2020, many of us were no longer able to do the things we enjoyed and took for granted. Squirreled away in our homes (unless we were those brave essential workers), people everywhere pondered what it was we could do to fill our days, to break the fear and monotony, and to bring us joy.
But then a curious thing happened. With access to the indoors largely shut off for many, people found the outdoors again. And outside just so happens to have birds. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reported that a record amount of users reported bird sightings to eBird in the beginning stages of the lockdown. It seemed like everyone was noticing the winged creatures that shared our habitats. These sparrows, swallows, and wrens brought with them the much-needed salve for our collective worry and despair we were desperate for. Nature is restorative, and during the pandemic, many of us realized this for the profound truth that it was.
Enter Ornitherapy, coauthored by Holly Merker, Richard Crossley, and Sophie Crossley. Though many birders will be familiar with Richard Crossley’s ID guides, this new offering is decidedly different. Together with Merker, an environmental educator and cancer survivor, and Sophie, Richard’s daughter and world traveler, the three set about creating a book that is part exploration and part journal, guided by the authors’ commentary on connecting with the wild world. Their title, Ornitherapy, is a play on the words “ornithology” and “therapy,” a term they created to describe the habit and practice of the mindful appreciation and observation of birds to bring us peace. What is clear is that the authors are tapping into something that many of us birders already feel down in our bones. Being in natural settings rights us; it smooths down the day’s burdens while building up in us a fierce alliance with the non-human species we share space with. We need wild places and all the species that call them home. Ornitherapy was written to remind us how important this is.
This book is organized into explorations, meditations, and journal prompts. There are 58 explorations, five guided meditations, and 63 journal entries with short prompts for each. In the explorations, the reader is encouraged to find a place outdoors and mindfully focus on specific aspects of birds, bird species, and nature. Each two-page exploration, accompanied by photographs and a quote, features an explanation or exposition on the topic followed by an “Exploring Ornitherapy” section. Here, we are asked to visualize, reflect, and answer questions. In the exploration “Hummingbirds,” we are called to imagine ourselves as a hummingbird. The authors guide us through taking flight, ask us to imagine the wind against out feathers, and drift above the world. In “Nature’s Music Therapy,” we are challenged to tune into nature’s soundtrack, listening for repeated phrases, location patterns, and pitch. In “Dusk: A Twilight Shift,” we ponder on “last light singers” such as swifts and find closure to our day.
The most poignant Exploring Ornitherapy sections are those that call for visualization, mindful observation, and urge us to contemplate the complexity of the topic at hand. Sometimes though, this section is more like a collection of discussion questions, and in some cases, the answers seem too simple to truly prompt deep meditation. Closed questions such as “if you see a bird with a bug in its mouth, can you identify the bug?” and “have you ever been surprised by how big a fish a bird you were watching consumed?” may invite examination and help us recall memories, but they feel a little flat. Though the second half of the book includes space for journaling on each of the 58 explorations, I thought the most compelling Exploring Ornitherapy sections were those that urge the reader to be still and open all senses to what birds are giving us.
There are a great many books that help us be better observers of birds, and this book could be one of them, but it’s much more interesting as a book that shows us how to better connect with birds in an active, not passive, way. In the exploration “Birds Go Straight to the Heart,” we are asked to find a place to sit outside and count backward from five while closing our eyes. Upon opening them, we are to use our senses to take inventory on the world around us. These types of explorations ring most true in their attempt to guide us through a true connection with birds.
I was also yearning for a more detailed treatise on why connecting with nature is so important for us humans. Coined by the biologist E. O. Wilson, biophilia is the innate human instinct to connect with nature and other living beings. Birders know this to be true in our hearts, but it helps a whole lot to know just how much evidence there is to back this up. We have ample research showing how disruptive and damaging our removal as a species from the natural world has been.
As mental illnesses, such as depression and attention deficit disorder, and physical illnesses, such as hypertension and diabetes, increase, physicians have started prescribing an unusual medicine: spending time in nature. Isolation from nature is associated with high levels of stress and obesity and with declines in mental health. Studies have shown that patients who are able to see green space outside their window instead of a brick wall heal more quickly. There is also research that shows that hyperactive children feel more calm and less stressed when surrounded by nature. The intrinsic essence of nature positively affects humans in a profound way that is still not fully understood. Being in nature or even just viewing scenes of nature is restorative to human psyches. Wilson declared that “the natural world is the refuge of the spirit, remote, static, richer even than human imagination.”
Merker, Crossley, and Crossley understand this. As lifelong birders and advocates for protecting the environment, they see this book as an opportunity for helping both the beginning birder and the lifelong diehard a chance to connect or reconnect with the reasons that birding feels peaceful and joyous and profound. Though I think more time could have been spent exploring the why of ornitherapy and providing the reader with more avenues to approach the natural world with mindfulness, not just questions, this book is an important addition to the growing collection of works calling us to tap deeply into the well of the restorative wild.
Rebecca Minardi is passionate about connecting young people with nature and fostering a love of birds at an early age. She writes for New York City Audubon's Urban Audubon, serves on the Detroit Audubon Board of Directors, and coedits Detroit Audubon's quarterly magazine, The Flyway. Rebecca resides in Illinois and enjoys birding with her two children.
Birding is a force for good in our society. Learning and sharing about birds translates into concern for birds and the environment, and the American Birding Association provides resources and community for all people interested in birds!