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Volume 12, Issue 2
February 2014


Mindful Bird Watching
By Lauretta Young

Mountain Bluebird, Sisters Oregon, 2013. ©2014 by Jeff Young

Over the recent winter holiday, my husband and I had an Oregon State University biology student as a guest in our home. Upon finding that we had an interest in bird watching, which includes taking others out on customized birding tours, she wanted to talk about her recent ornithology course which was required for her degree. The final exam was a series of what she described as “fuzzy” pictures of birds, which required identification based on observable markings. This is the typical idea of what “bird watching” is about and it was disappointing that the exam reflected this common point of view.

There is of course validity in trying to match the birds one sees with the pictures in field guides. Looking for distinctive markings is one way to identify birds. What I hope is that birders will learn a richer and more enjoyable way of “seeing” birds. What I find hard to discern from most birding guides with static pictures of birds is the lack of clues about their behavior, sound, interactions and flight patterns.

When I take birders out on tours, everybody wants to immediately use their binoculars. However, I like to begin with listening. What do we hear? Our human brains are so heavily weighted toward sight that we often don’t listen for clues. Almost always, we don’t even hear the sounds, in favor of visual information. Listening not only gives us clues about where the birds are, but of course, clues about which ones we may soon see. It also changes the way our brains work—the more we actively use all of our senses to be where we are to appreciate the full nuances of our current situations—the less we use the other parts of our brains. That other part of our brain is the “thinking” part rather than the “experiencing” part. Most of us over-use the analyzing, remembering, deciding, rehearsing and rehashing parts of our brain. To use our senses to connect with what is going on allows a new way to view the world and gives that over-used part of our nervous system a well deserved break. One does not need to focus on the breath to be mindful. Focus on all our sensory information. This is mindful birding.

I find that if we pay attention to what the birds are doing before we even get our binoculars on them we often can learn enough to identify them. To do this of course means that one has some idea of the usual suspects in that particular area at that time of year. I can tell if a Downy Woodpecker is approaching my suet feeder long before I could see any identifying marks by the particular arrow like form and the undulating choppy flight pattern of a single approaching bird. Similarly I often get questions about huge flocks of tiny birds approaching suet feeders--- I haven’t seen them but the only group of birds in our area that have 20 plus to a suet feeder in a huge flock are Bushtits—people are often amazed at this thinking it’s a form of magical ability but it isn’t—it’s mindful noticing over time of bird behavior.

Mindfulness is often viewed as some mysterious religious activity that requires special equipment or training. However, it is not a religious activity, and we can all be mindful eaters, mindful walkers and mindful bird watchers if we choose. It is fun, it is good for your health and it increases the possibility of experiencing awe and learning. This month I want to share a particularly awe-inspiring photo that my husband took of a recent trip to Sisters. We don’t have Mountain Bluebirds in Cedar Mill (we do have some birds that are blue such as Scrub Jays and, in the summer, Lazuli Buntings). The deep blue of this bird is amazing and it was a delight to see it in the sunlight. Go outside and see what delights you—see and hear and notice.

Lauretta Young MD is the current medical student resiliency project director at OHSU medical school and was the past chief of psychiatry at Kaiser. She now teaches medical students and birders how to be more aware of their optimum brain functioning. See her husband’s other photos on

Visit her web site for customized bird tours at


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Publisher/Editor:Virginia Bruce
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