The Healing Power of Nature

In 2015, I had a heart attack (an “acute myocardial infarction” on my medical record). I got to the hospital before much damage had been done, and I had a speedy recovery thanks to excellent medical care and, I suspect, to birds. Long walks in fresh air along with the simple but deeply felt pleasures of seeing and hearing avian treasures returning from the tropics seemed genuinely healing.

Spending time in natural settings and watching birds and other wildlife provide what feels to many of us like balm to the soul, but do scientific studies confirm that the experiences yield measureable medical benefits? Yes, they do.

In one 2016 study, researchers from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital examined more than 108,000 women enrolled in the Nurse’s Health Study from 2000 to 2008, comparing their risk of death with the amount of plant life and vegetation near their homes. They found that women living in the greenest areas had a 12 percent lower death rate than women living in the least green areas. The green areas included cities with lawns, trees, and shrubs as well as more suburban and rural areas; fully 84 percent of the women studied lived in urban areas.

What specific advantages did women living in greener areas get? They had a 41 percent lower death rate for kidney disease, a 34 percent lower death rate for respiratory disease, and a 13 percent lower death rate for cancer than those living in areas with less greenery. Researchers attributed about 30 percent of the benefit to the improved mental health and lower levels of depression in women living in greener areas. Increased physical activity and lower exposure to air pollution may have also been important.

In a study last year by Stanford researchers, 60 participants walked for 50 minutes, either in an oak woodland or along a four-lane road in an urban setting. Before and after the walk, the participants were assessed on their emotional state and how well they could perform tasks requiring short-term memory. Results showed that those who walked in the forest experienced less anxiety and brooding and felt more positive emotions than the urban walkers. They also improved their performance on memory tasks.

In one classic study from 1991, Roger Ulrich, the co-founding director of the Center for Health Systems and Design at Texas A&M University, and other researchers found that after being subjected to a stress-inducing movie and then shown one of six videotapes of either a natural or urban setting, participants exposed to a videotape of a natural environment recovered from the stress more quickly than those exposed to an urban videotape.

A positive response to nature also has been observed on other continents. In Japan, participants in a 2013 study took walks of equal length and difficulty either in a forest or an urban center as their heart rate and blood pressure were monitored. They also filled out questionnaires about their moods and stress levels. Those walking in forests had significantly lower heart rates and higher heart rate variability, which is related to feeling less stressed and more relaxed. Not coincidentally, the participants said they were in a better mood with less anxiety than those who walked in urban settings. Something about the natural setting was clearly beneficial.

In Finland in 2014, researchers learned that when city dwellers walked for as little as 20 minutes through an urban park or woodland, they reported significantly more relief from stress than those who walked in an urban center.

The studies support something many people have long believed. In 1912, John Muir wrote, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” In 1944, young Anne Frank seemed to understand this, writing in one of the final entries in her diary:

The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. As long as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.

But are birds specifically necessary for natural experiences to be healing? In the movie The Diary of Anne Frank, which added dramatic elements not mentioned in Anne’s diary, she spent time gazing through a tiny attic window at gulls flying in the open sky. The evocative beauty and freedom of birds winging through the skies stirs something deep in many of us and is perhaps part of the reason our images of angels, so associated with the heavens, are depicted with feathered wings.

Many people have told me how relaxing it is to watch birds in their birdbath, especially when they can watch the bird quietly preening afterwards. I’ve been an active birdwatcher since 1975, and I used to serve as a wildlife rehabilitator; I know how quiet and peaceful I felt when one of my charges sat and preened, running each feather through its bill, and sometimes fluffing out all its feathers and drawing them back to the more natural position. I’m not sure what it is about observing birds that is so calming, but it’s a real phenomenon.

In enclosed hospital spaces even in the heart of cities, animals have been found to have therapeutic value. Most birds may not be “pettable” in the way that therapy dogs and cats are, but they still provide a wonderful calming effect. Administrators of various facilities have written online testimonials about the value of aviaries for their residents and patients. “I can’t think of a better form of therapy for both our staff and our residents and their families,” one said. And another wrote, “The aviary is, without a doubt, the best thing we have ever done for our residents! I have seen residents that do not socialize, some that cannot talk, and some who have no response to staff ‘come alive’ while sitting in front of the aviary.”

If indoor birds provide help for people who cannot get outdoors, watching and listening to wild birds in their natural element is even more restorative. The Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory is offering an innovative treatment program called Bird Tales, sponsored by Toyota and Audubon, capitalizing on the value of birds to engage with people living with dementia. Volunteers give Audubon plush birds — colorful, soft toys that produce accurate song recordings when squeezed — to nursing home and assisted-living residents to give them multisensory stimulation. Volunteers also construct bird feeders and plant native species on site to create an outdoor environment that attracts wild birds, allowing the residents to see them right outside their windows and on walks on the facility grounds.

Participants in the program, including many who were normally quiet and affectless, smiled, laughed, and reacted positively to the plush birds. Facility staff members report something profound taking place deep within the residents’ hearts and minds, noting that residents’ higher levels of peace and contentment lasted for hours beyond the 45-minute activity.

Barn swallow
Barn swallow by Paul Reeves Photography/Shutterstock

Actively watching birds can help as we convalesce from an illness or face a potential death threat from one. Frank Izaguirre, a young birder undergoing chemotherapy for stage IV colon cancer, wrote in 2015, “Birds are good for healing. It must be something in their vitality, the way they move through the world with such seeming ease, easily passing through physical barriers the rest of us would find difficult or impossible to overcome. It is easy for the mind to wander to birds while hooked to an Oxaliplatin drip.”

During his treatment, birding wasn’t always easy. “Sometimes I would be too tired and sick to even go outside, and sometimes I would push it and suddenly become so exhausted I would need to lie down on the forest floor and sleep while my fiancée Adrienne sat beside me,” he wrote. “But on each of the days I felt strong, we were outside, seeking warblers in South Florida’s tropical hardwood hammocks and waders in its wetland expanses.”

Acclaimed author Terry Tempest Williams penned her lyrical book Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place about dealing with her mother’s death from breast cancer and facing her own battle with the same disease by seeking out natural areas. “How can hope be denied,” she wrote, “when there is always the possibility of an American flamingo or a roseate spoonbill floating down from the sky like pink rose petals?”

What is it about birds that brings us both hope and peace when facing a devastating diagnosis or catastrophic loss, or that makes people dealing with dementia feel joy again? Birds bring us auditory as well as visual beauty, have sparkling eyes and quick movements, and can take wing and fly. Field-guide author Roger Tory Peterson wrote of a transformative childhood experience, coming upon what appeared to be a lifeless clump of feathers on a tree. “I poked it and it burst into color, with the red on the back of its head and the gold on its wing. It was the contrast, you see, between something I thought was dead and something so alive. Like a resurrection. I came to believe birds are the most vivid reflection of life.”

Sarah Anne Shockley, author of the 2016 book, The Pain Companion: Everyday Wisdom for Living With and Moving Beyond Chronic Pain, wrote recently about her experience watching swallows swooping around her:

I was filled with a sense of renewal and joy. One would think “out of nowhere,” but it wasn’t. It was from these birds, and the sensation of watching them, and, it seemed, something they were bringing me. I felt included in Life in a beautiful and unusual way.

I consciously let myself have a vicarious flight with the swallows, feeling the freedom in their bodies, and how whole they were. And, for some moments, these little birds soothed the pain in my body.

Was I making it up? Perhaps. But, I guess I’d say, who cares? Does it really matter whether the healing comes from the birds, Nature, or from my conscious (or imagined) connection to them? Or all those things? Because I felt better. My body felt better. My soul felt eased.

That’s a lot when you’re in pain.

My own heart attack happened in mid-February. Wintry weather was still the order of the day in my northern Minnesota area, but I came home to chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and finches at my feeders. Over the following weeks, new birds arrived from the south, first in a trickle and then in a flood, in the same predictable pattern as every other year. My spirit swelled with that first robin of spring as it does every year, but my appreciation of that robin was somehow more deeply felt than ever before. Rachel Carson noted, “There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds….There is something infinitely healing in these repeated refrains of nature, the assurance that night after night, dawn comes, and spring after winter.”

Other wildlife and plants undergo seasonal patterns, too, but there’s a special magic each spring when a tenth-of-an-ounce hummingbird first peeks right into the window where our feeder was the year before and makes eye contact. That tiny mite traveled all the way from Mexico or beyond, yet returns to our backyard and somehow clearly remembers us personally. How can we not feel a thrill for the miracle, the mystery, and the connection we made with that indomitable spirit?

Black-capped chickadee by Steve Byland/Shutterstock
Black-capped chickadee by Steve Byland/Shutterstock

I’ve seen almost 2,000 species of birds in many countries and on three continents, but I take my deepest pleasure from watching the homey little chickadees in my neighborhood. In the winter of 2014, I noticed that one chickadee had a badly overgrown, misshapen bill, and had trouble opening sunflower seeds. He was also missing his three front toes on one foot. I didn’t know if this was due to an injury or a congenital condition, but he had adapted to clinging to branches with one foot. I started offering him mealworms from my hand, and he quickly learned to peck on my window to get my attention while I worked at my desk.

In the spring, the overgrown part of the bill broke off, and he looked fairly normal except for his crippled foot but didn’t manage to attract a mate. In 2015, the first time I offered him a mealworm after I came home from the hospital, he grabbed it, flew to a nearby branch, and presented it to a female. She accepted the gift; the two of them nested in an old apple tree across the street from me, and produced several young. I watched them fledge on a sunny morning exactly four months after my heart attack. Their plucky father’s resilience and determination had been so inspiring for me, and I felt such gratitude that I’d played a part in his success in creating these perfect new chickadee lives. I don’t know if any sensible cardiologist would credit my chickadees with hastening my recovery, but deep in my soul, I know it.

A version of this article was published in the August/September 2016 issue of Pain-Free Living. Subscribe.

Laura Erickson of Duluth, Minnesota, is the creator and producer of the radio program “For the Birds” and the author of 10 books about birds. She is a contributing editor for BirdWatching magazine, and in 2014, she received the American Birding Association’s highest honor, the Roger Tory Peterson Award.

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