Why a backyard that's 'for the birds' is great for kids, too

Plus, 5 ways to grow your family’s circle of feathered friends

Here’s something worth tweeting about: Being around more birds can boost your family’s happiness. A recent German study of more than 26,000 Europeans found that the cheeriest folks lived near natural areas with a wider diversity of bird species.

And no need to know the difference between wood thrush and white-throated sparrow whistles—turns out simply seeing and hearing a variety of feathered friends is enough. (Although learning how to ID birds’ songs and calls is a cool way to tune into nature with kids. And here are some bird bios to get them started.)

Since songbirds in particular tend to be cute and colorful, it seems natural that having more of them close by would be a good thing. But the mood lifter isn’t from the birds alone, researchers say. Instead, it’s the rich biodiversity, or variety of life, found in places birds call home. Here’s a quick look at why nature makes kids happy, as well as some tips for turning your backyard into a mini birding sanctuary.

Why nature contributes to happiness

“Many studies have shown that spending time outside in nature, or even viewing it from a window, can benefit mood and cognitive function, as well as reduce stress and anxiety,” says Greg Bratman, assistant professor of nature, health, and recreation at the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

For instance, this “nature pill” study found that a 20-minute nature break can significantly reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Other studies, Bratman says, have shown similarly positive impacts on heart rate, blood pressure, and other aspects of the autonomic nervous system.

That’s why Bratman, who led a recent review of research linking the environment and well-being, encourages families to make nature part of their daily lives.

“Trips to natural areas can contribute to well-being,” he says. “But regular instances of experiences with nearby nature can have effects as well.”

The biodiversity-bird connection

But why are birds so important to nature’s biodiversity—and therefore your family’s potential happiness? For one thing, birds are an indicator species, meaning they basically function as a “check engine light” for biodiversity. When something is out of whack in nature, birds let us know—often by disappearing—because they need a healthy environment to survive.

Of course, birds aren’t the only indicator, but since they’re found almost everywhere in the world and are easy to study, their presence—or absence—is a good way to measure the variety of life that research shows can boost mood.

So, would biodiversity without birds have the same effect? For instance, could seeing lots of poop-eating dung beetles—an indicator species in some parts of the world—increase happiness? Or is there something about birds that naturally sparks joy?

Scientists are still learning, says Clint Francis, a Cal Poly biology professor who supervised a recent study showing that hearing bird songs while hiking can hike up our sense of well-being. The authors suggest this is both due to the sounds themselves and the perception that more birds mean greater biodiversity.

Francis says that one reason birds might make us feel better could be related to how our ancestors used birdsong and chatter as a cue for danger.

“I think many people can relate to the experience of walking through a forest—birds are singing and chattering—then suddenly everything goes quiet,” he explains. “Our subconscious, and that of many animals, uses passive listening as a surveillance mechanism. Thus, sudden quiet is immediately brought to our attention for possible danger.”

Hearing birds might also produce positive effects because it reminds us of previous happy experiences in nature. That’s because the part of the brain—the temporal lobe—that processes memories also processes sensory information, meaning a specific sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch could become part of a memory. “Birdsong in particular might signal the arrival of nice weather and that harsh winter conditions are behind us,” Francis adds.

Although hearing more bird sounds is good for people, Francis says human-made noise is bad for birds. Based on his research and other studies, unwanted sounds—like traffic and gas-powered leaf blowers—tend to keep birds away. Plus, more background noise makes it hard to hear the birds that are already there.

“This is likely one reason why people reported seeing and hearing more birds during the COVID-19 lockdown,” he explains.

So turning down the noise even a little bit in your yard (for instance, by using battery-powered lawn equipment or planting tall hedges as natural sound barriers) will increase the number and variety of birds your family can see—and improve your ability to hear them, too!

Five steps to attract more feathered friends

To bring more biodiversity, birds, and happiness into your family’s life, create a wildlife habitat garden with the kids, says David Mizejewski, a National Wildlife Federation naturalist and the author of Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife. No matter the size of your outdoor space, you can build a bird-friendly habitat using these five steps:

Plant a native smorgas-bird. “Native plants are natural feeders that provide the variety of seeds, berries, nuts, and insects birds eat,” Mizejewski says. (Use this free Audubon native plants database to figure out what works in your region.) You can also use bird feeders—Mizejewski suggests starting out with black oil sunflower seeds (birds love it!)—as supplemental food sources. (Here’s one feeder the kids can make themselves.)

Add water. Birds need water for drinking and bathing. A simple birdbath or a one- to -three-inch-deep dish works well. (Check out this kid-friendly DIY.) Mizejewski suggests putting water in an observation area where kids can record the bird species they see in a journal or in a family eBird account for citizen science purposes.

Create hideouts. Densely planted areas give birds a place to escape predators and bad weather. “Kids enjoy building forts and dens, so enlist their help in choosing where to plant,” Mizejewski says. Roosting boxes (similar to birdhouses but with the hole at the bottom) are great for cold nights. “There are perches inside where multiple birds can fit,” he explains. “Their body heat kind of warms it up.”

Make room for baby. To reproduce and raise their young, birds need places to build nests. Help them by planting native trees and shrubs and protecting existing ones. “Many species build nests right into the branches, but cavity nesters use holes, oftentimes old woodpecker holes, in tree trunks,” Mizejewski says. For a fun activity after leaves disappear in the fall, take kids on a scavenger hunt to see where the birds built their nests.

Go natural. Keep the habitat you created healthy for wildlife by avoiding insecticides and other potentially harmful products. And don’t forget to keep cats indoors so they don’t “go natural” and kill the birds!

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