Birds saved my happiness and possibly my sanity as a misfitting teenager.
Forty years ago, we had recently come back to this country, as a family. Before that, I had lived on a tropical island in the Pacific, outdoors most of the time, under the sun. My mates and I had grown up outside, having archery competitions, making canoes from planks, paddling round the coast. Life was a ball.
In 1975, we were living in cold, wet, hidebound, rural Worcestershire – and I was bored out of my mind. The stream through the village was barely deep enough to float a toy boat. Wire fences and hedges crisscrossed the surrounding countryside and you were only supposed to cross a field if there was a Public Footpath. The exciting-looking wood across the valley from our house was private property (though that didn’t, in truth, stop me making the occasional foray inside). The village Bobby objected to me wearing a six-inch blade Bowie knife strapped to my leg. And I just didn’t get football, which made me an outcast to the boys at my new school. I was becoming more and more isolated and depressed.
It was around the time that my aunt suggested to my parents they should try to interest me in birdwatching. I liked my aunt – but I thought this absurd. On our Pacific Island we ‘plugged’ birds with slingshots and roasted them over a driftwood fire! Why would I want to creep about the damp British countryside and look at them?
My desperate parents persisted. They bought me a cheap pair of binoculars, signed me up to the RSPB’s Young Ornithologist Club, provided a little Observers’ book of British Birds and pushed me out the door. I must have given it a go out of a sheer lack of alternatives. Perhaps you have too, during this long year of lockdowns?
The transformation seems to have been almost instant. I have a battered but intact bird watching diary from 1975 which records (in misspelt detail) the geeky excitement that took me over. It reveals the multiple benefits which bird watching gave me, opening my eyes to a new reality. I was delighted to record my personal ‘firsts’ as I spotted new species. I found birdwatching distracted me from my angst-filled teenage inner world, and drew me out of myself. Soon I couldn’t wait to get out every Saturday, or in the light summer evenings, once I had done my homework. I got friendly with another lad, Ray, who didn’t like football either but was open to birdwatching. Soon, he brought along another friend. Before long, I was mixing with many other lads. I was exercising, and out in the fresh air, often out for four or five hours at a time, covering miles of the local countryside on foot.
Fast forward to 2021 and I realise that birds, and wider nature have again played a major role in keeping me mentally healthy during what has been an incredibly unsettling past year for everyone. Regular prayer walks in a small local wood have been a lifeline throughout the pandemic and I’m determined to keep these going even with the lifting of restrictions and return to work in A Rocha UK’s new office several days a week. I can still tell my Blue Tit from my Coal Tit; my Swift from my Swallow; and my work at A Rocha UK enables me to fight for the now threatened species I so fondly recorded all those years ago.
If you want to try birdwatching...
At the most basic, buy a reasonable bird identification book, such as the Collins BTO Guide to British Birds, and preferably a pair of binoculars too, and just start going out watching and listening – in your garden, or local parks, woods, fields etc. You will be amazed what is out there often right under your nose as it were! You can get good condition birdbooks and binoculars for budget prices, online or in local second hand shops.
Learning from others is fun and quicker too. So, if you have a friend already into birdwatching, ask to accompany them and get some tips, as well as enjoy a good walk together! If you don’t have such a friend, why not ask at Church whether there are any birdwatchers in the congregation you could talk to. There are a lot of us about, but we don’t necessarily have it stamped on our forehead! Or look out for guided birdwatching walks locally provided by organisations such as the Wildlife Trusts.
This ‘Meet the Community’ article was written by Andy Atkins for the Wild Christian email, ‘Nature and mental health.’ Andy Atkins is our CEO. Follow him on Twitter Instagram: @andy2atkins