Melissa-060821-1

I experienced unimaginable grief. In birds, I found a reason to go on

Research has shown that birdwatching can help with mental and physical health. After losing my parents, I found out how true that was

Melissa Hafting is an ecologist, bird guide, author and photographer.

I lost my mother on Christmas Eve in 2021, and then my father just fourteen months later. It was a grief I never knew I could handle, much less survive. 

After my parents passed away, some of the people I was close to stopped talking to me. Grief scares people. Some don’t have the capacity to take on another person’s sadness. They don’t know what to say. They feel really uncomfortable when you tell them, “No, I’m still not okay.” When you admit, “I am overwhelmed and still heartbroken and probably always will be.” So, I turned to birds. 

Birds are able to carry our grief. I could talk to them and cry in front of them with no judgement, or not say a word. Birds were not scared by my grief. Birds made me feel safe and welcome. With birds it was okay for me to not be okay. They helped me to still see the light and beauty that remained in the world. 

A birdwatching snapshot: Snow Bunting forages on the ground in Tsawwassen, B.C.
A ruddy turnstone, a rare sight on the beach in Tsawwassen, B.C. Photo: Melissa Hafting

My dad was a naturalist who introduced me to birding, sharing his love for birds with me when I was five years old. I became even more enthusiastic about them than he was, becoming a hard-core birder. I founded the B.C. Young Birders Program in 2014 to encourage more youth to discover the joy of birds. As a provincial reviewer for eBird, a citizen science project documenting birds in nature, I enjoy helping other birders identify their sightings, and I’m an administrator of the B.C. Rare Bird Alert website. Birding has been a source of community and inspiration for me for years, but in grief it became a lifeline.

I’m not the only person who has found solace in birds and nature. Around the world, people experiencing grief, loss, stress, anxiety and depression have been helped by birds.

In 2017, researchers studied hundreds of people of varying ages, races and incomes, and found their mental health benefited from birdwatching. Study participants experienced lower cortisol levels, less pain, slower heart rates and decreased blood pressure. Their anger, fear and anxiety were eased. They also experienced a boost in short-term memory, energy, productivity and happiness.

Researchers found the more birds participants saw in a day, the more their stress levels decreased. Birding has positive effects on those suffering from mental illness as well, and it can boost self-esteem and mood.

Birdwatching: nature as medicine

I tend to go out birding as early as possible, because that is when birds are most active. I always take my binoculars and camera to document any rarities that I may see. I also bring my iPhone with me, so I can check my field guide apps and record my sightings in the field. If I am going shorebirding, I will bring my scope with me to spot birds far out on the mudflats. I like to go birding in both the sunshine and the rain. It helps restore me even on the gloomiest and wettest of days. It’s a break from the daily stressors of life, a chance to focus on the here and now.

A birdwatching snapshot: a close-up portrait of a ring-billed gull at Garry Point Park in Richmond, B.C.
A close-up portrait of a ring-billed gull at Garry Point Park in Richmond, B.C. Photo: Melissa Hafting

Researchers at McGill University found that getting out in nature for as little as 20 minutes stimulates endorphins and makes people feel more alive, energetic and healthy. Many other studies have found positive outcomes and health benefits associated with spending time in nature.

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The benefits of birding are available to everyone, because birds do not discriminate. Watching them is accessible to the elderly, the middle-aged, the young and the disabled. I cherish the peace and tranquillity of birding alone but I have met many birders of all ages and abilities and this hobby truly has the power to bring people from all walks of life, age and abilities together.

Birds, like humans, experience grief

We go outside to be in nature and see birds not because of what the science tells us, but because of how they make us feel. Birdwatching is mesmerising: the songs, the birds flying in unison, it all helps with the pain many of us are carrying. You can feel your loved one with you, when you get out in nature, allowing us to stay connected to those that we have lost. Whenever I see a hummingbird or a snow goose I think of my father. He loved both of these birds and every winter we would watch the snow geese together. He also loved to go up to the mountain and feed Canada jays. My mother loved bluebirds and we would take drives up to Merritt, B.C., to see them and would seek them out every spring when they passed through the Metro Vancouver area.

Grief takes a heavy physical toll on the body. After losing my parents, my sleep was very disturbed, and I was exhausted after caring for my terminally ill mother. Some people have even experienced heart attacks from grief. Birds help me to find clarity and peace of mind, and distracted me from the physical and emotional pain, even if for brief moments.

A birdwatching snapshot: a ruddy turnstone, a rare sight on the beach in Tsawwassen, B.C.
A snow bunting foraging for food on seaweed in Tsawwassen, B.C. Photo: Melissa Hafting

Birds are sentient: some feel pain, loss and even grief, just as us humans do. An emperor penguin was filmed grieving over the loss of its dead chick, and the same behaviour has been observed in ducks. Perhaps this is why many of us feel such a deep connection to birds and other animals: their bonds with one another resemble our familial relationships, and they also grieve when these sacred bonds are severed. 

When people lose their spouses, research has shown getting outside and practising a hobby that brings them joy can help to ease their worried minds and broken hearts. After I lost my parents, I found that this was true for me as well. When you are mourning, you carry a heavy weight on your shoulders, but mine feels a little lighter when I’m outside in nature birdwatching. 

And birds are resilient, just like humans. Birds overcome arduous and difficult migrations, they lose young and other family members. They grieve as we do, but they also keep on going, comforting one another and giving the gift of comfort too. 

More than 1,200 species of birds are facing extinction in the next century. Even as they suffer from climate change and severe habitat loss, they continue to provide us with such priceless gifts and ask nothing in return.

Updated March 27 at 8:40 a.m. PT: This story has been updated to correct the captions on the ruddy turnstone and snow bunting photos, which were swapped.

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