Birder Jason Ward Explains Why Birding Is So Therapeutic for City-Dwellers

"A big concrete, bustling city might not seem like the best place to observe wildlife but no matter where you go you will see birds."

Jason Ward

Jason Ward is many things, but he considers himself a birder first. He’s also a writer for the National Audubon Society, an educator, and host of the video series Birds of North America host.

“Birding is very therapeutic and no matter what is going on in your personal life or in the news, you can always just go to your local park or nature preserve, take a pair of binoculars, and just listen to the birds sing,” Ward tells me this interview below, which has been edited for edited for length.

A version of this article first appeared as the Sunday Scaries newsletter. Sign up for free to receive it on Sundays.

Hi! Can you tell me a bit about yourself and what you’re up to?

I am a couple of things. I am a writer for the National Audubon Society. I’m an educator as well. I guess most importantly, and this is not really an official title or anything like that, but I’m a birder. That is me, to my core. At the end of the day, the thing that makes me most happy are birds and the activity of actually going out to observe them in the field.

How did you become a birder?

I was born and raised in inner-city south Bronx New York, and anyone who knows anything about that kind of area knows that it’s not the most wealthy area by any stretch of the imagination. My upbringing was kind of rough but through all of the peaks and valleys — mostly valleys — birds remained a constant and they were always a way for me to temporarily escape from whatever was going on in my life.

The issue was that I couldn’t really share that with anyone, because growing up in the projects means that telling someone that you learned a new fact about birds isn’t the coolest thing in the world. So I just kept it to myself and shared it with my parents and my siblings. Fast forward to six years ago. I’m living in Atlanta and I got a promotion at a mortgage job that gave me a little more free time and gifted me with a little more disposable income. Those two things combined led me to googling the local nature organizations here in Atlanta, and I stumbled upon the Atlanta Audubon Society.

I saw that they had free bird walks available on their calendar for anyone to just sign up, so I said, “Perfect, this is exactly what I want to do.” I bought a pair of binoculars from Amazon for like $60 and I practiced a little bit a local park and then, boom, the day came, and I thought I was like this young hot shot who was going to show up and know all of the birds. No, not at all.

These people there were amazing, calling out things and pointing things out and I’m just like, “What in the world?” I couldn’t find the birds that they were seeing or hearing so it was frustrating and exciting at the same time because I knew that, “OK I can get to that level, you know it’s attainable. I just have to work at it.”

So each time I went on a bird walk I would go home and study, study, try to learn, try to pick up as much as I could, surround myself with people who knew more than I did; download apps on my phone, whatever.

So April of 2013 is when I attended that very first bird walk. January of 2014, eight months later, I was leading that same bird walk. The first Saturday of each month from that point on, I’ve been leading a monthly bird walk here in Atlanta that’s completely free for everyone. I show a little bit more love to the new beginner birders because I know how that was just six years ago.

Based on my want and need to share my passion with everyone else. I’ve been utilizing Twitter for some time now — trying to figure out nice and cool ways to talk about birds and because of that last year someone from Topic reached out to me and wanted to work. We brainstormed a little bit and next thing you know, we’re filming the first season of Birds of North America.

It feels like lately two things are going on in cities — more people are talking about bird watching, and more people are open about their stress. Do you think there’s a connection between this rise of stressed urbanites turning into bird watchers?

I don’t think it’s a coincidence at all. I think that there is definitely some correlation there. In fact, I was just in Toledo, Ohio and they have this festival there every year called the Biggest Week in American Birding. There was a tattoo contest and the woman who finished third told a really heartwarming story about how she had struggled with ADHD for years and years, and one day she went out birding and she hadn’t had any symptoms since. She got a tattoo of her favorite bird to commemorate that.

She’s just one of the many stories I hear of people who just decide to go outdoors, go exploring, and be amongst the birds. Birding is very therapeutic and no matter what is going on in your personal life or in the news, you can always just go to your local park or nature preserve, take a pair of binoculars, and just listen to the birds sing. I think it legitimately contributes to overall mental health — it’s a really good stress reliever.

Have you found that birding helps out with your own mental health?

No doubt. There’s a legitimate improvement I can notice and over the course of my day I can trace back how well I’m feeling to whether or not I went birding. Everyone deals with obstacles and annoyances on a day to day basis but I have to say I’ve never bumped into another birder with a frown on their face. Everyone is content because we’re doing something that we love and we’re just watching these winged, feathered, dinosaurs soar on wind currents. There is just something carefree about that.

Do you think people can still see those improvements if they are living in a city?

One-hundred percent. A big concrete, bustling city might not seem like the best place to observe wildlife but no matter where you go you will see birds. For example, I was just in Chicago last week and in the middle of this super busy, charming city I found myself in a park about a block long filled with migratory birds. There were sirens in the background and cars honking — and there’s ovenbirds and a species of bright blue and yellow bird called the Kirtland’s warbler. There’s only estimated to be about 5,000 of them left in the world. They were hoping around, feeding on insects, and this is all happening in a big city. A few minutes later, I was able to see my favorite bird, the peregrine falcon, soaring amongst the skyscrapers. The birds are there — you just have to go out and find them.

A recent tweet from Ward had him spotting this goose in Alaska.

What bird would you say is the chillest bird?

That’s a good question — people view birds and they assign them these anthropomorphic traits, and I totally get why they do, but I don’t really view birds the same way everyone else does. So, for example, an Eastern bluebird has these beautiful soft tones, an orange belly, and sings these nice sweet songs. You would maybe feel relaxed looking at it. But if you are a caterpillar, and you fall on a leaf, that blue bird landing on you is going to be the farthest thing from relaxing.

But I’ll give you two: The American Goldfinch is this bright, yellow bird with this sweet song that it sings as it flies with this undulating, bouncing flight. They’re gregarious so they sit with their flock and dine on seeds all day. They don’t want to fly down and rip apart an insect. They just want to eat seeds; they are like the vegans of the bird world.

Another bird I’ll give you is the Cedar Waxwing. These are really strikingly beautiful birds that move together in flocks. They don’t really want to bother anyone, they just want to eat berries. Something that adds to their cool factor is sometimes they eat fermented berries by accident and they can get a little tipsy. So those are the two birds I would pick.

Have you ever heard of the phrase “Sunday scaries” and have you ever experienced them?

So, I have never heard of the phrase before, but it makes perfect sense that, no matter what kind of environment you live in, if you work a job, you feel the Sunday scaries — no doubt about it. I’ve been there definitely.

Now Look At This Oddly Satisfying Thing

Aloe polyphylla

This is the spiral found atop aloe polyphylla. This aloe plant is endemic to South Africa and is striking for its symmetrical, five-pointed spirals. It’s a reminder of the patterns we can find across nature, which are often united by the same mathematical and physical principles.

A version of this article first appeared as the Sunday Scaries newsletter. Sign up for free to receive it on Sundays.