'Let's Talk: Birding & Mental Health' Interview With Founder of Birder Brain, Kelly-Sue O'Connor

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Bird watching benefits the mind, body, and soul. Recent studies have shown that bird watching reduces cortisol levels from stress, lowers heart rate, and helps diminish anxiety, fear, and muscle tension. In addition to those benefits, researchers also found that birding provides a mental work out as participants search for birds and try to identify them. This helps to increase short term memory, concentration, patience, and productivity. Bird watching can be a calming hobby, that helps provide a distraction from life's struggles and brings peace during troubling times. It's also a great way to boost physical health and build a connection to nature. The mental & physical benefits of bird watching are truly endless. Ontario birder, Kelly-Sue O'Connor, is determined to spread awareness of these benefits through Birder Brain, a project of passion that was created to explore the connection between birding and mental health. The Birder Brain social media accounts and website feature personal stories from members of the birding community who have found healing through birding, tips, quotes, and provides a safe space for sharing personal thoughts or stories with other birders. Join us in this interview with Kelly-Sue to learn more about birding & mental health, and the Birder Brain project.

Kelly-Sue O'Connor, founder of Birder Brain

Tell us a bit about yourself and what started your interest in birding.
My name is Kelly-Sue O'Connor. I live in Blenheim, ON with my husband, my 12-year-old son and rescue bunny, Figgy. I grew up on the east coast but have lived in Ontario on and off for over a decade now, we are more permanently here these days. When I was living in Toronto about 15 years ago, I found a little yellow canary in an alleyway on Queen West and Bathurst who was lost. It took me a few hours but I eventually rescued him and he became my best friend for the next short 4 years he was in my life. At that time, I never noticed birds, I was playing in bands, working full time and not in the best frame of mind. I always say I saved him and he saved me. I called him Banana Bird and he went with me everywhere, we went shopping together at the little shops, to brunch on patios and he fit in a little cage in my bike basket which he loved to ride in. I remembered hearing an acquaintance of mine was a birder so I contacted him and asked him to take me birding. We went to high park and spent a few hours looking for birds and I was hooked. Shortly after we moved and I started birding on my own. I would take terrible photos and go home and try to identify them in my Petersons Field Guide. I continued birding like that for a few years until I met someone after I moved back east that mentored me now and again and my interest in birds just kept growing.  Birding to me was an escape from my problems, a mind I could not quiet and I suppose reality. 

Birding And Mental Health | Birder Brain (birderbraindoc.com)

Bird watching, and being immersed in nature, has long been known to have health benefits, both physical and mental. Your project, Birder Brain, dives into the mental health benefits that birding can provide. Can you tell us why you felt it was important to start a project like this and what your goals are with Birder Brain?
It wasn't until I started trauma therapy about 4 years ago and was diagnosed with C-PTSD from childhood and religious trauma on top of my ADHD, Depressive and Anxiety Disorders and Auto-Immune that I realized I was using birding as a way of grounding and being mindful. Something clicked then and I knew I wanted to share my love of birding in a different way with people. I wanted to connect with others that use birding for their mental health too but to also find people who never thought of using birding that way. My goal is to share the stories of as many people as possible through filming, written interviews or sharing quotes and eventually turn it into a feature length documentary once I gain the interest of the right person for funding. I believe these stories are helpful and healing. It is difficult to share but I want to make a space where sharing is safe. I want it to be beneficial for those who don't feel ready to share yet so they know they aren't alone. There is power in sharing our experiences, taking back ownership of our experiences and growing from them. 

I hope on top of the social media presence to start leading mindful birding walks wherever and whenever I can. And the bigger dream is to be able to become a certified eco-therapist and forest guide to make Birder Brain a way I can help people more personally. 

You talk about "mindful birding" on Birder Brain - can you elaborate on what this means and how it differs from other forms of birding? 
For me mindful birding is not putting pressure on myself to list or chase. It's going to the woods or the water and just being with birds and surrounded by nature. It allows me to enjoy each moment and be present. With my mental health diagnoses being present at any given time feels like an impossible task. When I first spoke to my therapists about my inability to stop the constant noise in my head, they were sharing different skills for me to try and I failed at all of them miserably. When I started talking about birding we both had an AHA! moment. Birding was my mindfulness, birding was a way I knew how to be present, it interested me enough that I cared about nothing else around me. I didn't care about my past, present or future, I was just there. They started adding birding to my weekly skills practices, it gave me permission to go out without feeling guilty about birding. No one was making me feel guilty but I was taught to feel guilty my whole life and spending time doing things I loved just felt wrong to me. Now I can go and know that I am making a better and healthier me for my family.   

"..it's important to say that in mindful birding you don't need to know the names of any birds at all. Just go spend time watching or listening, you don't need to join any clubs if you aren't comfortable doing so. You can be a birder just by spending time with birds."

How has mindful birding helped you on a personal level?
I like to get in my hiking as well because exercise also really helps my mental health but I don't really like it, when I'm birding, I can easily walk 20km in a day and have no idea until the end. But mindful birding for me can look like going to an area, hiking to a spot I like and just sitting there listening and watching any bird that comes my way. It has increased my appreciation for common birds and it has also helped my identification skills because I'm not rushing to rare birds that I may never see again.  It's helping to teach me patience and to allow my brain to calm down and it helps me to regulate emotionally. 

It's also connected me to a wonderful group of mindful birders from all over. I actually am on a committee currently planning the first ever mindful birding festival to take place in Colorado June of 2023. It's been a huge support to connect to this group. It also has given me the opportunity to become a Vortex Ambassador which I'm also grateful for, I think it's encouraging that an Optics company has an interest in how birding helps our mental health. 

Do you feel that the competitive side of the birding world can have a negative effect on mental health? If so, how can we help overcome this?
When I was in Toronto, I was so overwhelmed with the competitive listing and chasing. I respected so many of the birders and felt that maybe I had been birding wrong all these years. Birding on the East Coast was not like this. I would get depressed and anxious if I didn't have access to our one car or my son was home and I couldn't go out to chase a rarity. Then the pandemic happened and I was paralyzed with fear because of my physical health issues and stopped going out at all for a while, that forced me to let go of listing for that year.  It took me some time to realize that birding had switched from improving my mental health to actually making it worse. Once I did, I made a conscious decision to return to why I started birding in the first place which was to quiet my mind and improve my wellbeing. I let go of expectations, even now if I miss a target bird it does not bother me as much as it used to. I can be happy for my friends who chase without feeling resentful. It's all positive changes that mindful birding has made for me.  Some people thrive on competitiveness and I have a fellow neurodivergent birding friend who said chasing and listing effects his mental health in a good way because of the dopamine release. It's different for everyone, however, there is no question that adding mindful birding in there sometimes too if not all the time will have a positive effect on your mental and physical wellbeing. 

Northern Parula by Kelly-Sue O'Connor

We all know that birding can be an extremely fun and educational hobby, but it's not always accessible to everyone. What do you feel the birding community could do to be more inclusive of individuals who may feel nervous or intimidated about entering the birding world (disabled, LGBTQ2S+, BIPOC, and others)?
I can not speak to the experience of others but I know I have witnessed a very closed birding community myself. There is a lot of gate-keeping and sometimes I don't have the mental capacity to break those gates down and shouldn't have to, I can't imagine how difficult navigating that is for those with intersectional identities. Some clubs are doing the work of making things more inclusive but you will always have those in the clubs that don't like change and prefer to keep things the way they are. Look for your local birding communities who are putting in the effort to change things. Some groups have a better system and built in accessibility from the get go. I recommend looking up the Feminist Bird Club chapters near you (no, you do not have to be female identifying). They have really spent the time to look at the barriers for many communities and to overcome them. I'm on the board of the Toronto Ornithological Club as the Communications Councilor and we have been working hard at making changes to be more accessible and welcoming. I can only speak to the couple of clubs I know about but they offer different kinds of outings for different communities so you should be able to find something that applies to your specific needs. For instance, the TOC has done naked birding where you don't need to bring any equipment at all or big sits for those with mobility issues where you can just sit in one spot and watch the birds that come to you. Where financial barriers are an issue some of these clubs have binocular lending programs. There are BIPOC birding clubs and LGBTQ2S+ birding clubs too.  It's worth spending a bit of time online looking for resources for your specific needs or reach out to people like the TOC and FBC and ask. We are always happy to help.  

How can others get involved in Birder Brain and share their stories of birding and mental health?
Follow me on Instagram at @birderbrain, Facebook at @birderbraindoc or birderbraindoc.com and just send me a message. Right now, I can only travel to film within a few hours of my location in Ontario but filming is what I really love to do, I think that way of telling stories so impactful. I also do written interviews on the website or you can simply share quotes with me that I turn into graphics to post. There are many ways I can tell your story, it can be as simple, complicated, short or long as you want it to be. I don't want to limit in anyway so that as many people as possible can share. 

Another way is by donations. If you don't have a story you want to tell but want to help further the project, I am in need of help so I can travel to film more people. I have had many people reach out that I cannot get to. There is a link to donate on the website. 

White-throated Sparrow by Kelly-Sue O'Connor

Last but not least.. what is your favourite bird species and why?
This is always the impossible question, isn't it? It can change on any given day but I usually choose the White-Throated Sparrow based purely on the fact it reminds me of spending time with my grandparents. They lived on a mountain and the sound of the sparrows always rang out. When I started birding it was my mission to find that bird song I always heard as a child and I went through all the bird songs in my app until I found it. My grandparents taught me what real love was, they were my safe place. They are both gone now as of a few years ago but that song just brings a peace over me, an instant comfort. It's kind of like one of my grandfather's warm loving hugs when I hear it.  I even made it my ring tone which confuses birder's sometimes when there shouldn't be White-Throated Sparrows around!  When I finally saw my first one for my life list back in New Brunswick we had come across a small migrating flock and it was glorious. Some birding experiences you never forget and that was one of them for me. 

Have a birding and mental health story of your own you'd like to share? Be sure to contact Kelly-Sue through the Birder Brain Instagram page, Facebook page, or Website.

Happy trails!
- Shayna

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