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The healing power of birds

Guest blogger

We invited Joe Harkness, author of Bird Therapy to share his story on the blog. You can watch our film where Chris Packham meets Joe on Winterwatch on Wednesday 30 January 2019. 


In 2013, following a breakdown, I finally sought help for my mental health issues, that I felt had been present since I was a teenager. I confronted my demons, which included: my childhood, debt, addiction and suicidal thoughts and I decided to try and transform my life into something more positive. This was the start of a recovery journey that took in medication, counselling, mindfulness and the reconstruction of a broken mind. There was one thing that seemed to have a more powerful impact and that was getting outdoors, specifically, birdwatching.

It started with a pair of buzzards, regally dipping and rising in their enchanting display flight – their mewing calls smoothing across the airwaves on a still late-winter day. They gave me a buzz, a feeling of renewed positivity and I instantly knew what they were. This was the beginning of my reconnection with birds and with being outdoors, observing them, an interest that I’d long-suppressed in my days of arrogant debauchery. A childhood interest that had been embedded in my psyche by my nature-loving grandad, who’d taught me about kestrels and great-crested grebes as we spent time together in the absence of a father. A day together at a Norfolk nature reserve as a belated birthday trip for him, rekindled that interest further and a passion was born – my bird therapy had begun.

To try and explain the benefits that birdwatching, being outdoors and in fact any immersive hobby can bring, is a mammoth task. I wanted to share my new-found positivity with others and that’s why I started my blog; and ultimately how it developed into a book.

The point starts in the name ‘birdwatching’. Quite simply, we are never truly just watching birds – we are actually engaging all of our senses.

It’s possible to lose yourself in the multi-sensory wonder of avian experiences. I always refer back to the example of the heathland area of my patch. On a warm early-summer day, you can feel the sun on your arms, you can smell and even taste on the air the gorgeous aroma of coconut-scented gorse. Skylarks can be seen in song-flight high above your head, stuttering sweet bursts of familiarly repetitive melodies. The magic passes you by sometimes.


Don’t be put off by the adverts for expensive optical equipment and package getaways. Begin at home, with some bird seed and suet balls and simply start to get to know your garden bird community and they will always be there to offer you solace in troubling times. Spread your wings and explore local sites, perhaps finding a lake or a woodland that you can explore and get to know.

Better still, find somewhere that offers you a range of habitats, as ultimately, you may see a wider variety of birds too. This will form the foundations of your own avian tutelage, much like my grandad gave me mine. I advocate a back-to-basics approach - embrace it.

Being outdoors is my escape and nature is consistent in a way that people rarely are. From spending time getting to know a place and its birdlife through the seasons, I’ve become tuned in to the calendars and timeframes of nature.

The more I’ve come to understand the concept of ‘place’, the more I’ve come to understand my own place in the world.

Knowing that I have places to go, that are not necessarily wild but provide a home for wildlife, creates a feeling of having a second home – a safety net of sorts. I’m not sure where I’d be without these natural networks to intertwine with my existing supportive ones around me. Well actually, I do know where I’d be and that’s not here at all.


There may be some readers who felt affected reading about how depressed and in need of help Joe Harkness was before he took up birdwatching. If you are experiencing emotional stress, help and support is available

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