A Walk in the Park is Better with Birds

Full Citation: Cameron, R. W. F., Brindley, P., Mears, M., McEwan, K., Ferguson, F., Sheffield, D., Jorgensen, A., Riley, J., Goodrick, J., Ballard, L., and Richardson, M. (2020). Where the wild things are! Do urban green spaces with greater avian biodiversity promote more positive emotions in humans? Urban Ecosystems, 23, 301-317. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11252-020-00929-z.

The early bird gets the…jump on answering emails.

It’s 9 a.m. on a Monday. You just got to work and have a pile of emails to catch up on. Your phone is buzzing with texts and calls from co-workers and family. You have a lengthy to-do list sitting on your desk, and have many important deadlines coming up at the end of the week. Worse than all that, Starbucks messed up your favorite order, and you’re stuck drinking a coffee you don’t really like. Alright, you get the picture. Daily life is very stressful for most of us, and our attention is constantly being diverted in several directions.

To cope with these stressors, many of us seek relief in nature, whether it be eating lunch outside underneath a tree or taking a post-work walk through a city park. After spending some time in nature, we tend to feel less stressed, and are in a better mood. Research has documented ample evidence of the positive influence being in nature has on our psychological health. For those of us living in cities, our only access to nature is found in urban green spaces, such as city parks. Understanding the health benefits of urban green spaces, city planners and policymakers are devoting more resources to the creation of urban green spaces. But are all urban green spaces created equally? What makes one space better for our health than others?

Endcliffe Park, one of the most popular city parks in Sheffield, United Kingdom. Wikimedia.
All green is good, but which kinds are best?

To better understand what qualities of urban green spaces maximize human health benefits, a research team led by Ross W. F. Cameron sought to understand whether there was a relationship between human emotions and biodiversity levels (the number of species) in urban green spaces. Why might biodiversity be important? Based on previous research, Cameron and colleagues hypothesized that when people perceive an area as being rich in biodiversity (largely based on visual observations of different habitat types), they perceive the space as being more “natural”, and then experience greater psychological benefits. To assess biodiversity levels, Cameron and colleagues chose birds, which have been shown in a variety of studies to be a great indicator of overall biodiversity and have positive effects on human health.

Using a mobile phone app (Shmapped), the researchers were able to measure perceived levels of biodiversity and emotions experienced by visitors to urban green spaces in the city of Sheffield, United Kingdom. When app users entered one of 945 urban green spaces in the city, they were promoted to respond to two questions: ‘how many types of plant/tree/animal would you guess there were’ on a sliding response scale from ‘none’ to ‘lots’, and ‘how did you feel about this place’ as expressed by a scale of happy to sad emoji faces. Among the most frequently visited urban green spaces in Sheffield, researchers selected ten of these and conducted bird surveys to test whether perceived level of biodiversity was positively associated with the actual biodiversity level.

Birds are making us happier, whether we realize it or not.
City parks in the United Kingdom can be home to a wide variety of bird species, such as this Mute Swan (Cygnus olor). Image Source.

Results revealed that there was a strong, positive relationship between avian biodiversity (as measured by number of individual birds and number of different species) and emotions experienced. The more birds present in an urban green space, the happier people tended to be. Actual biodiversity level was also strongly related to perceived biodiversity level; in general, people accurately perceived greater biodiversity in urban green spaces that did in fact have greater biodiversity. Finally, when comparing perceived level of biodiversity with emotions experienced, there was an even stronger positive relationship. Simply perceiving a high level of biodiversity was enough for people to experience the most positive emotions. All these results indicate that green spaces differ in their influence on human health, and that people tend to experience greater levels of happiness in spaces with a greater diversity of birds.

For policymakers in cities, these results send an important message: not all urban green spaces are created equally. If policymakers want to maximize the human health benefits, urban green spaces should be designed to incorporate a variety of habitat types to promote greater levels of biodiversity. Since people visually respond to a diversity of habitat types as being indicative of high biodiversity, having variation in a park is crucial to maximize health benefits. A simple small square of green grass with a couple of shade trees does not have the same effect as a larger park with ponds, native flowers, and small patches of forest. While the former may be easier and cheaper to implement, the health benefits are not nearly the same. What does this mean for you when you’re out walking through a city park? Although you may not consciously notice them, the birds are doing wonders for your health. Hearing and seeing a diversity of birds in a wide array of habitat types is making you feel happy, even if you have no idea what types of birds are around you. So next time you’re out in a park, take a minute to pause and think about all the different birds that are sharing the park with you. They’re certainly not thinking about the emails they’ll have to answer in an hour, so maybe you won’t either.

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Connor Rosenblatt

I am most often found running, backpacking, or birding. When not pursuing one of those passions, I spend my time studying social and cultural factors in cities that influence biodiversity conservation policies. I am currently pursuing my PhD at the University of California, Davis. I previously earned an M.S. from The Ohio State University and a B.S. from Cornell University. In the past my research focused on population and occupancy modeling of shrubland and grassland birds.

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