May 28, 2024 - Energy & Environment

Axios Finish Line: Birding for the soul

Illustration of an owl wearing a pair of binoculars and pointing its wing to the left.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Birding is a hot hobby in the post-pandemic era.

Why it matters: It comes with a slew of perks, from boosting mental health to aiding scientific discovery.

By the numbers: 96 million Americans — more than 35% of people who are 16+ — have taken part in bird-watching or bird conservation activities, according to a 2022 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey.

"Sometimes we internalize this idea of wilderness and nature as being synonymous with grand sweeping vistas like Yellowstone or Yosemite," Ed Yong, Pulitzer-winning science writer and recently converted birder, tells the Axios "1 Big Thing" podcast.

  • "For most of us, those places are hard to get to," he said. "What birding has taught me is that nature is really just around me all the time."

Case in point: Yong started bird-watching less than a year ago, and has "fallen hard." He says he's found it transformative for his mental health — and even more meditative than actual meditation.

  • "The last several years of pandemic grief and angst have made me realize that trying to seek joy and a connection with land and space and nature is not a sidebar of fulfilled life. It's one of its most important pillars," he said.
  • Yong, one of the first reporters to report on long COVID, has recently started a bird-watching group for long COVID sufferers he's calling The Spoonbill Club.

Zoom out: We're in a bird research boom. That's been boosted in part by citizen-scientists who are contributing work on bird conservation, says journalist and author Anders Gyllenhaal.

A blue and red bird among branches
Axios podcast listener (and bird photographer) Lois Hammer spotted this Painted Bunting on Little St. Simons Island, Ga.

How to get started: Experts say you just need a good pair of binoculars. And there are many apps to help.

  • Cornell Lab of Ornithology maintains the app and the website eBird — the world's largest citizen-scientist bird-watching project, with more than 100 million observations reported each year.
  • Cornell also has another free and popular app, Merlin, which helps identify birdsong.

Go deeper: Listen to the entire conversation with Ed Yong.

Go deeper