Get out your bird book and binoculars—it turns out that birdwatching offers a flock of benefits for Aging Well. And luckily for Tucsonans, our area’s climate, geography, and location along migratory flyways attract more than 500 species of birds. You don’t necessarily have to hike into the desert to go birding; many people can simply look around their property to see everything from Anna’s hummingbirds to Gila woodpeckers.
That’s the case at Splendido, an all-inclusive community for those 55 and better in Oro Valley. “I counted 10 or 12 species of birds at Splendido in June,” says resident Phoebe Olmsted. “Right now, we’re all intrigued with the vermillion flycatchers. We have one that’s nesting here… it’s just gorgeous! The Gambel’s quail have hatched and the chicks are running everywhere, and the hiking club often sees two great horned owls in Honeybee Canyon, which is adjacent to Splendido.”
Phoebe is a lifelong birder—she joined the Audubon Society of Dartmouth College at age six—as well as a former falconer and raptor rehabilitator, and an accomplished nature photographer. She was instrumental in getting the Madera Garden at Splendido certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Refuge. The certification requires providing different types of bird food, water, cover, and a place to raise young, as well as practicing soil and water conservation and controlling invasive species.
“The bird population in the garden has definitely increased since we did this,” says Phoebe. Residents enjoy the sights and sounds of birds coming and going in the quiet, contemplative garden. Larry Abrams, another Splendido resident who is a lifelong birdwatcher, explains that the garden includes several feeders to attract different birds, including a thistle feeder for goldfinch and a very popular hummingbird feeder. “There are two very small hummingbirds that stay here all year—Costa’s and Anna’s—and we get a few others migrating through,” he says. “Recently, I saw a broadbill hummingbird.”
Benefits of Birdwatching
Many Tucsonans like Phoebe and Larry are passionate birdwatchers, and research shows that the hobby is good for their mental and physical health. In fact, just being around birds makes us less likely to experience depression, anxiety, and stress, according to a study conducted in a neighborhood in southern England. The researchers found a positive association between the number of birds people see daily and their mental health.
Another study identified bird songs and calls as the most restorative natural sound for stress and attention fatigue. “The birdsong at Splendido in the morning is just wonderful,” says Phoebe.
Those benefits are enjoyed by anyone who notices birds; more serious birdwatchers are also getting a cognitive workout, as they work to identify species by sight, sound, and/or research. This helps keep memory and problem-solving skills sharp. And, of course, they are getting at least a mild physical workout by traveling to where birds are found. “If you are a birder, you’re willing to go outside, and any time you’re outdoors walking around is better than sitting inside,” Larry points out.
Research has shown that walking outdoors strengthens short-term memory, and that spending time in nature can lead to improved concentration and attention spans. Other studies link time spent in nature with lower levels of inflammation, reduced hypertension, and even a stronger immune system. And it’s no surprise that spending time outdoors will boost your mood. One study found that people in nature had slower heart rates and lower levels of the “stress hormone” cortisol than those who spent time in the city. Spending time in nature has also been linked to boosts in serotonin and jumps in activity in the brain areas responsible for empathy and love.
An additional benefit of a hobby like birdwatching is the social aspect. Birdwatching in a group like the local Audubon Society can build regular social connections—which, in turn, positively impact your overall health and well-being. It’s no coincidence that Splendido recently began a partnership with the Tucson Audubon Society; with Splendido’s location and nature-loving population, the relationship is. . . well, a natural.
Give birdwatching a try—it’s an interesting, low-impact way to get some exercise, boost your brain health, and improve your mood. Tucson Audubon Society offers good information for novice birdwatchers at tucsonaudubon.org/go-birding, along with information on excursions and a local Birding Trail Map