Birds Add to Happiness

Eastern Bluebird - Photo Earl Harrison
Prothonotary Warbler - Photo Stan Lupo

A recently released study concludes that diversity of bird species is associated with higher life satisfaction. The study, published in Ecological Economics, is the first continent-wide analysis of the impact of biodiversity on subjective well-being. The authors compare bird data from the European Breeding Bird Atlas to life-satisfaction ratings from over 26,000 individuals from 26 European countries, controlling for socioeconomic factors and other environmental characteristics. Their findings suggest that the correlation between happiness and bird diversity is similar in magnitude to that between happiness and income.

While no such quantitative study has yet been conducted in North America, readers of Song Sparrow won’t need statistical evidence to recognize that the presence of a rich variety of birds can increase happiness — a sentiment that has become increasingly well-recognized during the COVID pandemic. Unfortunately, however, bird populations and species richness are rapidly headed in the wrong direction. Bird populations in North America have declined 30 percent since 1970. According to the IUCN, 109 North American bird species are currently vulnerable or endangered.

Habitat loss due to land use is among the leading drivers of extinction globally. As individuals, providing wildlife-friendly habitat is one of the most significant actions that we can take to help to reverse losses of birds and other creatures — and, with it, boost our own happiness.

When we provide wildlife habitat in our yards, individual actions add up. Currently, turf lawns consume 40 million acres of land in the continental US, which equates to about three times as much land as that dedicated to irrigated corn. These lawns, moreover, are effectively biological deserts, intensively managed to create monoculture instead of promoting biodiversity.

Northern Mockingbird

On the flip side, however, this means that there is incredible opportunity for individual land-owners to help to reverse the tide of extinction and biodiversity loss. As entomologist Douglas Tallamy proposes in his best-selling book Nature’s Best Hope, if every American homeowner converted just half of their lawn to wildlife habitat, the result would be, in essence, the country’s largest national park system.

Image Credit: Columbus Audubon

To effectively manage our yards to support diverse bird populations, it is also essential that we choose native plants. Compared to introduced plants, native species support a much greater variety of insect species, which in turn means a greater variety of birds. As Tallamy emphasizes, native plants are essential to host sufficient numbers of the caterpillars that birds need to feed their nestlings.

This year, Columbus Audubon has teamed with the Grange Insurance Audubon Center to promote this goal with the Native Plants Backyard Challenge. This program, which kicked off last month, has enrolled over 100 households to gain the tools, information, and collective inspiration to create native wildlife habitats in their own yards. If you missed this year’s challenge, know that another Native Plants Backyard Challenge is now being planned for 2022. Keep following Columbus Audubon for updates on this year’s program and information about how to register for next year’s!