Looking for benefits in birdsong

Nightingale On reflection: do birdsong and other "natural" sounds change perspectives?

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Conservation charities and scientists are beginning a research project to find out whether birdsong has any impact on people's mental wellbeing.

Surrey University, in conjunction with the National Trust and Surrey Wildlife Trust, will look for effects on mood, creativity and behaviour.

Though many people say they enjoy birdsong and other natural sounds, there is a lack of academic evidence.

The project will involve laboratory and field research, and questionnaires.

Although there has been a lot of research on responses to nature in vision - for example, showing that hospital patients respond to treatment better if they see images of landscapes rather than urban walls - relatively little has been done on sound.

"There have been a studies showing for example that natural sounds can help people recover physiologically from stress," said Eleanor Ratcliffe, the psychologist from Surrey University in Guildford who will lead the project.

"I'm interested in breaking that down, finding out what sorts of natural sounds and even what species people prefer listening to and find most interesting."

Initially, volunteers from the National Trust and the Surrey Wildlife Trust will fill in questionnaires to find out their preferences and how they self-rate the impact of hearing birds.

In time, this will progress to lab-based work in which people will be asked to perform various tasks while listening to different types of birdsong.

These may be problem-solving or creative; and the impact of different sounds on parameters such as stress will also be assessed.

"I'm really interested in how people rate and respond to different types of song, for examples comparing a crow with a wren," Ms Ratcliffe told BBC News.

"There's also the issue of the symbolic associations people have with different bird sounds - for example, if they associate hearing a particular species with a nice holiday."

Last year, the National Trust launched a scheme encouraging people to listen to birdsong for five minutes each day, as a way of combatting the "winter blues".

"Birdsong gets us closer to nature, and links people to places and memories in a way that few other sounds can," said Peter Brash, an ecologist with the Trust.

"It's a simple pleasure that most of us can enjoy, even if we live in towns and cities."

The new study will find out whether this mood enhancement is a reality for people who are not already bird or nature enthusiasts.

The three-year project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, with additional money from the National Trust and Surrey Wildlife Trust.

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