A New Book Encourages Birding for Mental Well-Being

Blogger and teacher Joe Harkness reflects on what prompted him to write “Bird Therapy.”

On an August day almost four years ago, Joe Harkness stood at Blakeney Point, a nature reserve in Norfolk, England. Rain poured along the North Sea coastline, a hotspot for observing avian migrants, and Harkness had his face turned to the sky as birders often do. Soon, it wasn’t just water coming down; flocks began descending, too. “I find it difficult to put into words how it feels to be standing while it's raining birds,” Harkness says. “It was unbelievably magical, and when I got back, I wrote my [first] blog.”

The phenomenon Harkness experienced, called a “fallout” of birds, occurs when winds funnel migrating species toward the shore where they hit a wall of rain and are forced from the sky. For Harkness, it was a climactic moment. He began writing a blog called “Bird Therapy,” with his first post documenting the awe-inspiring event and the positivity he felt through birding. After many more revelations and entries, Harkness decided to spin the series into a book of the same title. It releases in the United Kingdom and eReader libraries today.

Since he was young, Harkness has struggled with his mental health, self-medicating by turning to drugs and alcohol. After suffering a breakdown in 2013, he took time off work to care for himself and began spending more time outside, particularly watching birds. “Because I've been trapped by my mental health for so long, I found their freedom and their majesty quite enchanting,” he says. “I wanted to experience that feeling again, so I decided to take a bit more of an interest in what was around me bird-wise when I was outside.”

Harkness was familiar with birding, but he hadn't developed his own appreciation for birds. As a child, his grandfather would take him on walks through the Norfolk Broads and point out avian species like Great Crested Grebes, moorhens, and Eurasian Coots. Harkness says he was “such a mess” that he never really got into the discipline. Only once he began his recovery did he start taking a deeper interest.

After the event at Blakeney Point and the creation of his blog, Harkness says a friend encouraged him to write a book. Although he was apprehensive at first—he's a special education teacher by profession, not an author—he realized it meant having a broader platform to try and help others facing similar struggles. Using his semi-weekly entries as the bones of the manuscript, Harkness paired up with Simon Spanton, a projects editor at Unbound, an agency that publishes books by crowdfunding. Spanton says he saw potential in the material. “Joe is very unvarnished as a writer,” he says. “He doesn't hide; he doesn't keep anything back; he admits to weakness and failings. The book really works because of that.”

Throughout the funding process, Harkness says he doubted he’d ever raise enough money. But much to his surprise, supporters covered the publishing costs in six weeks, based off the idea alone.

In the book, which caters to beginners, Harkness describes his own birding experiences and gives advice for getting the most out of the activity. His suggestions include: 

  • Consider finding yourself a local birdwatching patch. The consistency and security that visiting a regular patch provides can also help you to connect with yourself and with nature.
  • Investigate local bird groups or clubs, as they can widen your local birdwatching network with others who share your interest.
  • Keep and submit your bird records as they can help to map local and national data trends, as well as potentially encouraging others to monitor and visit different areas.
  • Familiarize yourself with the natural sounds of your bird community, either in your own garden or in a place you visit often.
  • Explore different places in different weather conditions as they alter your local avifauna.

With tips like these at the end of most chapters, it's clear that Harkness didn't just write Bird Therapy to help himself. By sharing his experiences, he hopes the book will guide those who’ve had similar downturns to embrace nature as a form of self-care. “I think that it's going to do a lot of good,” he says, “even though I didn't allow myself to think that for a long time.”      

Bird Therapy, by Joe Harkness, 272 pages, $13.48. Buy it on Amazon.