Birdsong: Can robins’ cheeriups cheer us up?

American Robin, Stevens Creek County Park, CA
Copyright 2011 William Walker, http://www.birdwalker.com

I’m trying to write this post, but I can’t concentrate. I’ve got a few dozen other things on my mind. So I walk outside. I stand under a magnolia tree in my yard, and I listen. That’s because I’ve just been Skyping with Eleanor Ratcliffe, a Ph.D. student at the University of Surrey. She’s researching the effects of birdsong on people’s well being.

“Ever since I started studying psychology, I’ve been interested in the relationships between people and the environment,” Ratcliffe says. “We know about how nature can help people who are mentally fatigued or distressed recover their attention and feel less stressed and positive, but most of that evidence comes from visual pictures. You put people in front of a screen and show them rolling hills. But there’s been little focus on other modalities of nature.”

To help fill this gap in the research, Ratcliffe is conducting a three-year study to see if the sounds of robin cheeriups or pigeon coos might benefit humans. National Trust, a charity that works to protect green spaces and historic sites in the United Kingdom, and Surrey Wildlife Trust, are partners.

Ratcliffe spent part of the first year gathering qualitative data about what people do when they’re feeling stressed or tired. “I found that birds were pretty important to people” who sought comfort in nature.

This summer she brought subjects into the lab to perform stressful arithmetic tasks for four minutes, and then exposed them to different nature sounds for the same amount of time. “They’re horrible equations,” she explains. “They have to respond to whether they’re true or false within three seconds. Unless you’re a mathematician, it’s pretty fiendish.”

In one scenario, people were exposed afterward to gentle nature sounds, such as rustling leaves. The second scenario added the songs of “pleasant birds,” which Ratcliffe defines as “birds people generally regarded positively.” The third scenario replaced them with the sounds of so-called “horrible birds,” such as crows and magpies.

She’s still collecting data. “I’ll be interested to see if there are any differences in how people regarded those conditions, and if they had any measurable effect or change.”

Ratcliffe hopes to eventually bring her subjects outdoors to analyze the effects of recorded versus real-time birdsongs. But it will be challenging to maintain experimental controls in this environment, she says. She’ll need to isolate the experience of birdsong from the distractions of a particular location. “Maybe they’re excited,” she says, “and they want to come to this park because they love it and they don’t care what they hear.” Blindfolds may help.

Though the study has two more years to go, updates may be found through @BirdsongProject on Twitter and on the project’s Facebook page. “I’m hoping my findings might be useful in helping people to engage more with nature,” Ratcliffe says.

As for me, I’m not sure if my few minutes of birdsong therapy under the magnolia tree helped me shrug off some of the stress I was feeling. I think I need more data. I’ll come back tomorrow.

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