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An Unintended Consequence of Birdwatching

Magee Marsh

David and I just returned from a four-day trip celebrating our 45th Anniversary! We traveled, of all places, to the Black Swamp. While that hardly sounds like the kind of spot you’d want to choose for an anniversary celebration, in reality, it’s “our” kind of place. A place to birdwatch! 


Last week at the Black Swamp was dubbed “The Biggest Week in American Birding.” It takes place yearly in early May along the shore of Lake Erie in Northwest Ohio, a migratory path for warblers and other birds flying north from Central and South American. Believe it or not, thousands of people from all over the country, even the world, come to this 19,000-acre protected refuge to watch the birds. People we affectionately call “bird nerds.” 


Early on during our birdwatching excursion, I began to notice what I believe to be an unintended consequence of watching the birds. Everywhere we went, every individual or group of birders we encountered was deeply focused on the “hunt“ while simultaneously relating to one another with kindness, deference, and notable courtesy!


This body politic of birdwatchers was unusually thoughtful, compassionate, self-aware, and peace-loving! I never encountered anyone who seemed agitated, aggressive, or angry. If I ever saw anyone on their cell phone, it wasn’t to watch a YouTube video, make a call, or text but to check their Merlin app for unusual bird songs! I thought to myself, “What’s going on here?” “When was the last time I’ve encountered large numbers of people who individually and collectively exhibited such patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control?” 


As I’ve considered birdwatching's effect on people, I’ve wondered if this happy hobby is a contemplative practice in disguise that literally changes our brains! According to new studies in neuroscience, *“contemplative practices catalyze changes in the brain’s neural pathways in ways that enhance focus, equanimity, compassion, and insight.” That describes the people I hung out with for four days!


To cultivate the ability to spot these wee warblers, usually between five and seven inches long and obscured by tree foliage requires quiet calmness. Birdwatchers exhibit a certain “library etiquette,” an equanimity, as Oakes calls it. Mental calmness, composure, and even-temperedness characterize them. They float by one another, exuding a Zen-like peace. 


It stands to reason that the practice of focusing one’s attention on watching for birds increases our ability to get outside ourselves and contemplate the “other,” whether that other be a prothonotary warbler or a bald eagle in flight. To contemplate something is to become absorbed by it, allowing it to be the focus of our attention rather than remaining self-focused. 


Anecdotally, I’ve yet to meet a mean birder. That’s not to say there aren’t any or that they don’t ever lose their cool in ordinary life! However, I strongly suspect that the practice of birdwatching, often for many hours at a time, soaking in the beauty and peace of the natural world, has the effect of calming the brain as it softens the heart. 


David and I have enjoyed birdwatching together for more than twenty-five years. We first visited the Black Swamp on our 20th Anniversary and took a ferry from Putin Bay to Pt. Pelee National Park in Ontario. Every time I’m engaged in this now-named contemplative practice, at some point, I will become awash in awe! I see some amazing creature that only God could have imagined and I’m hushed and humbled by the holiness of it all. 


While we birdwatchers don’t likely engage in our favorite pastime to rewire our brains, I’m pretty sure it’s happening, and the result is remarkable! The effect produces a more attuned, compassionate, polite, and open-hearted person, as well as a collective community of downright decent human beings of which I’m proud to be a part. Call me a bird nerd. I'm happy to be given the designation! 

*From Practice the Pause: Jesus’ Contemplative Practice, New Brain Science, and What it Means to be Fully Human, by Caroline Oakes



1 Comment

May 12

Thanks Beth for the fun reflection I’ve been a “bird nerd” since a wee lad. The beauty draws my soul and focus in ways I marvel at. As soon as I saw that photo at the head of your writing I knew right where David was standing. Beth and I have been there many years ago too.

Beauty is everywhere, sometimes hidden amongst the leaves of the tree next to you. Thanks for helping me further connect dots. I’ve been pondering bird watching and God watching the past days as I seek out the abundance that is Spring migration. Here are two of the hundreds I’ve seen in recent weeks.

Love to you both Scott

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