John Craven: Why birdsong makes us happy

New study assesses impact of natural melodies on our health.

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New research into twitter and tweets will result in some interesting findings, with absolutely nothing to do with electronic communication.

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Instead, with spring just around the corner, what better time for scientists to begin investigating the original form of tweeting: birdsong. They want to discover its impact not on other birds but on us.

Does listening to it help make us happier, feel more relaxed, think more creatively, work more easily and feel at one with nature? Those are some of the intriguing questions that a University of Surrey project hopes to answer during the next three years.

“A great deal of anecdotal evidence suggests we respond positively to birdsong,” says Eleanor Ratcliffe who is conducting the survey, “but there is a lack of scientific research on the psychological effects of listening to birds. We hope to build up a clearer picture of how and why it impacts on our quality of life.”

Not all birdsong is soothing – think of crows and magpies – but who can doubt that skylarks and blackbirds lift our spirits and in the depths of winter the chirp of sparrows can make a gloomy day cheerful. For a while it was possible to tune into nothing but birdsong on a digital radio station and as I write I’m listening to a blackbird on the BBC Springwatch website and almost smiling.
Ecologist Peter Brash of the National Trust, which is backing the survey, says: “I’ve always had birdsong as a natural soundtrack to my life. It brings us closer to nature and links people to places and memories in a way that few other sounds can.”

But not all is well in the world of birdsong. For starters, there is less than there used to be. Numbers of many UK songbirds have dramatically declined and while modern farming practices are blamed for reducing wild habitats, some fingers are now being pointed at deer for eating the trees and shrubs that birds depend on for nest sites and cover. As I reported recently, the boom in raptors may also be part of the problem – a claim hotly disputed by organisations such as the RSPB.

According to the Smithsonian Institution in the USA, urban noise is forcing many birds to change their tunes and sing higher so they can be heard by potential mates – and rivals. “It’s just another example of how humans continue to impact on wildlife,” says Peter Marra, a conservation scientist overseeing the American study.

Fifty years ago, Rachel’s Carson’s book Silent Spring alerted the world to the damage being done to wildlife, especially birds, by the uncontrolled spraying of chemical pesticides. It helped kickstart the environmental movement and such practices are now banned in many countries.

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Rachel Carson effectively mobilised birdsong and sent it into action as a weapon in the war against the wilful destruction of our natural surroundings. Now, it has become a vital element in the debate over how much we value nature – for itself, as a source of national income and as an important factor in our well-being. If nature is happy, the birds are singing.