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Can birds make us happy?

17 December 2012 British Ecological Society (BES)

As millions of us post our Christmas cards – many of which star a robin red breast – ecologists are investigating whether birds make us happy. Speaking at this week's British Ecological Society Annual Meeting, researchers will reveal how they are investigating the links between birds and our well-being, and explain how their results – due out next year – could have a major impact on UK bird conservation.

There has been an increasing amount of research on the health benefits of green spaces such as parks and nature reserves, but we know far less about how the wildlife within these habitats contributes towards well-being benefits.

Take wild birds for example says PhD student Natalie Clark from the University of Reading, who is leading the study: “Most of us say we enjoy seeing wild birds in our local environments every day, be that the friendly robin visiting our garden each Christmas or ducks swimming in the local pond. But we have little idea of how much we value their presence and how they're contributing to our overall well-being.”

Given the declining numbers of many bird species the study – which also involves the University of East Anglia, the RSPB and the University of Chicago – is timely. “Any well-being benefit we may be receiving could soon be in jeopardy as numbers of many wild bird species have declined across the UK since the 1970s,” says Clark.

“We know that wild birds are very important to a significant proportion of people living in the UK, with more than 60% of people with a garden providing supplementary food to birds. What we need to understand next is how and to what degree wild birds are benefiting people in the UK, so that we can work to conserve these birds and the well-being benefits they provide for future generations. This is particularly important at a time when many of us are feeling the ‘economic pinch’ and will appreciate benefits from increased well-being to an even greater degree.”

Participants from across the UK have been filling in questionnaires designed to find out how often they visit green spaces and why, and to measure how differing levels of bird activity near people's homes may be affecting their well-being.

According to Clark: “We’re really interested in the reasons why people visit green spaces and how important different aspects of wildlife, particularly birds, are to their outdoor experiences. That friendly robin hopping across your lawn might be more important than you could imagine.”

Results from the study are expected in the spring, and the three and a half year project is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, with additional support from the RSPB.

Natalie Clark will outline the study at 12:45 on Tuesday 18 December 2012 to the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting at the University of Birmingham.

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