Comfort and solace: The healing power of birds in the backyard

9/2/2013 | 2

Yellow Warbler in northwest Iowa photographed by Linda Petersen.

Yellow Warbler in northwest Iowa photographed by Linda Petersen.

In August 2011, my husband was diagnosed with cancer that required surgery. The night he came home, he was in pain. We had trouble sleeping but awoke in the morning to the gentle chattering of Evening Grosbeaks — a sound we’d enjoyed almost every morning in the 1980s but hadn’t heard in our yard in over a decade. Sixteen grosbeaks stayed for the next six weeks. Naturally, as a birder, I was thrilled with this unexpected distraction. But my husband, a non-birder, found the grosbeaks a healing presence, too. (He’s healthy now, with no sign of recurrence.)

I thought of this when I received an email from a friend whose mother had moved into a senior apartment. The property managers, she wrote, seemed to want to get rid of the wildlife: “In May, they knocked down all the Cliff Swallow nests on the building, and now they are making a decision to ban all bird feeding on the property.” Her mother was especially concerned about a resident who had taken solace in her bird feeders since her husband died.

In recent years, as more and more apartment complexes and subdivisions have banned feeders, I’ve received many similar letters and calls. Managers cite several concerns — that spilled seed will attract vermin, that feeders might pose a health hazard to humans (a claim supported by no health department that I can find), that woodpeckers will peck holes in siding, that droppings will damage lawns and structures, even that feeder poles are hard to mow around.

It’s true that messy feeders can cause seed and shells to build up, creating an eyesore, attracting mice and rats, and fostering certain bird diseases. But proper maintenance and smart food choices are all it takes to prevent almost every problem associated with bird feeding.

For example, although hulled sunflower seed is expensive and needs to be kept fresh and dry, it eliminates waste and spilled shells. Likewise, bowl-type hummingbird feeders can be a better choice than tubes, which often drip sugar water, attracting ants and wasps.

I know feeders provide comfort for shut-ins and apartment dwellers. I can’t find studies on the therapeutic value of backyard birds and bird feeding but would love to collect anecdotes about how it benefits people. If you have a story you’d like to share, leave a comment below or send it to me at [email protected]. – Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson’s column “Attracting Birds” appears in every issue of BirdWatching magazine. This article appeared in the October 2013 issue. Laura is a co-author of National Geographic Pocket Guide to Birds of North America and the author of Laura’s Birding Blog. On the blog Laura’s Conservation Big Year, she describes her attempt to find and photograph species of conservation concern.

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  • M.E. Kirkchaney

    Hi Laura:
    During the first year that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology had the live webcam in the Great Blue Heron’s nest, I repeatedly saw people comment on the chat that watching the birds had helped them through crises. Some were medical/physical, others were emotional. For others, it was just a ‘bright spot’ in their bad day.

    I wondered about how that webcam provided a chance for some folks to develop a community and a connection with nature that they hadn’t previously known.

    Thanks for all you do “for the birds,” Laura!
    –Mary Ellen