Birding Is the Perfect Activity While Practicing Social Distancing

This global pandemic has us all pretty freaked out. Handled responsibly, open space and wildlife observation might be just the balm you need.

Update 3/24: Even in the short time since we published this story, the coronavirus crisis has grown more severe. More than 100 million Americans are now under state or local orders to stay inside as much as possible, and public health experts say that maintaining physical distance from others is the best way to slow the outbreak. We urge you to be extra cautious when considering spending time in public spaces. For the greater good, staying at home if you can is what is called for right now. We've created a page celebrating the joy of birds, where you can find activities and entertainment to help you get through this tough and uncertain time. 

This is all so surreal, isn't it? 

None of us has been through anything quite like COVID-19, the coronavirus outbreak that the World Health Organization this week labeled a global pandemic. At this moment, more than 137,300 cases have been confirmed worldwide, and at least 5,073 people have died. Markets have tanked. Everything's canceled. Precautions that once might have seemed paranoid now feel like common sense.

Here at Audubon, we don’t want to make light of a serious situation. We’re also worried about our loved ones. We’re scared, too. 

But may we recommend something that, under the circumstances, might seem trivial?

If you can, go birding. 

We know: It might seem exploitative for the Bird People to promote birds during a public health crisis. But there's an argument to be made that—as long as you don't put yourself or others at risk—birding is the perfect thing to do right now. 

First, spending time in nature can serve as a form of social distancing, the strategy epidemiologists are recommending to limit spread of the virus. Of course, social distancing doesn’t work without the distance part, so this only counts for open spaces that you can reach while avoiding close contact with others.

For these reasons, don’t go with a group of friends. Continue to avoid public transit if you can. And remember that those aged 60 and up or with chronic ailments may be at greater risk of serious illness. If that sounds like you, or if you live in an area with an outbreak, please be extra cautious and keep an eye on what your local health department advises. 

We aren't suggesting an involved, all-day outing. Maybe it's just walking to an uncrowded neighborhood park, or driving yourself to some nearby woods. If those options aren’t available to you, even just gazing out your window and closely observing any birds you see can help. 

“I think this is a great way to relieve stress, and should present little or no threat of exposure,” says Robyn Gershon, an epidemiology professor at New York University’s School of Public Health. “We should encourage these healthy coping mechanisms, and also it’s good for people to maintain their enjoyable pastimes to the extent possible.”

As Gershon suggests, birding, like other outdoor pursuits, can also be great for mental health. There’s a growing body of scientific evidence indicating that contact with nature can ease anxiety and provide an all-around mood boost. With rising fears and palpable tension in the air, we can all benefit from this calming influence. 

If you’re a seasoned birder, now’s the time to take comfort in an activity you love. You might find that birding alone offers a distinct kind of pleasure. And if you’re not yet into birds, this is actually a pretty great time to begin—spring migration is about to heat up, and you’ll be so glad you started paying attention. Orient yourself with these common species, then download Audubon’s free Bird Guide app to explore further and keep track of what you see out there. Or, if you’re adjusting to a new work-from-home setup, take an afternoon break to sneak in a few minutes of on-the-clock, out-the-window birding. We won’t tell. 

Truth is, nobody knows what’s next or how this is all going to shake out. The best we can do is follow the guidance of public health professionals, be good to ourselves, and look out for each other.

So: Wash your hands. Call your loved ones. And, if it’s an option, look to the birds.