For the Birds Radio Program: In My Prime
As of Friday, November 11, 2022, for the 20th year of my life, I’m officially in my prime, thanks to 71 being the 20th prime number. I’ll have to stop saying I’m in my prime next year about this time, but will have two more prime years this decade, assuming I make it to 73 and then 79.
And also as of Friday, I’m not just in my prime—I’m the precise definition of what a 71-year-old looks like. My whole life, the multi-billion-dollar cosmetics and fashion industries have been hell-bent on making everyone feel dissatisfied with our own faces and bodies. I’m pretty good at ignoring the constant barrage of ads for beauty products—they don’t feel personal except for one ad for Botox looking down at me above my dentist’s chair. It’s bad enough knowing he and the hygienist judge my toothbrushing and flossing habits—are they also using their magnifying lenses to study my wrinkles? That is the kind of thought I try to banish by thinking about birds.
Maybe it’s because I focus my eyes and optics on birds rather than the mirror that I don’t mind being whatever age I happen to be. I’m still in good health, but even when I’ve faced surgeries, two heart attacks, and cancer, paying attention to nature has had real medicinal value. In April 1978, I had abdominal surgery back when they made incisions bigger than they do now. The doctors and nurses told me to go slow with walking and stay off uneven surfaces, and that lifting would be especially bad. I don’t remember the precise weight limit—just that my 7x50 Bushnell binoculars exceeded it. But hokey smokes—it was April—spring migration! The morning after I got home, Russ took me to my favorite birding spot. When I heard Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, I forgot all about my incision as I charged up a small hill to see them, and the pain magically stayed at bay. My recovery took way less time than doctors predicted, thanks to birding.
The medicinal value of birding is not unique to me—during my father-in-law’s final months in the late stages of cancer, he was up and in the living room every morning at first light to see the birds arriving at his feeder. Over the years, a great many other people have told me how birds brightened the final weeks and days of loved ones.
And the therapeutic value of birding isn’t just anecdotal. New research from King’s College London found that seeing or hearing birds is associated with an improvement in mental wellbeing that can last up to eight hours, including for people diagnosed with depression. Johanna Gibbons, co-author of the study, said that the dawn chorus is “A multi-sensory experience that seems to enrich everyday life, whatever our mood or whereabouts.” She continues, “This exciting research underpins just how much the sight and sound of birdsong lifts the spirits. It captures intriguing evidence that a biodiverse environment is restorative in terms of mental wellbeing. That the sensual stimulation of birdsong, part of those daily ‘doses’ of nature, is precious and time-lasting.”
And the value of birding isn’t limited to mental health. Ontario writer Bob Bell contracted a debilitating case of Lyme disease in 2013 when he was in his late 50s. He had to take early retirement from a job he loved in the mining industry and thought his life was pretty much over. But he got so engrossed in birds at his feeders that he started more serious birding, took up bird photography, and says, simply, “Birding saved me… It’s given me a real spark and purpose in life.” Bell just wrote a book about his experience, Out of the Lyme Light and into the Sunlight: Birding as Therapy for the Chronically Ill, which will be out this month by Hancock House—I have it on pre-order from the publisher.
None of us can turn back the clock except in a Standard Time vs. Daylight Savings Time sense, and even the U.S. Senate knows how stupid that is. As with every living thing, each of us is given a finite set of years, months, and days, and no beauty or fashion products or injections of botulism toxin can change it. Why squander valuable moments of my finite life fretting about my reflection in a mirror when I can reflect on and enjoy real beauty? Life doesn’t have many guarantees, but birds, from everyday chickadees and jays to much harder-to-see species, are guaranteed to bring beauty and fascination to our lives if we open our hearts to let them in.