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The healing powers of ornitherapy — explained

Holly Merker is convinced that all the times she went birding while undergoing treatment for breast cancer provided more than temporary solace. She believes that birding helped her beat the disease.

Holly Merker, the well-known Chester County birder has just published a new book about ornitherapy.
Holly Merker, the well-known Chester County birder has just published a new book about ornitherapy.Read moreKari Oeltjen

Holly Merker is convinced that all the times she went birding while she was undergoing treatment for an aggressive breast cancer provided more than temporary solace.

She believes that birding helped her beat the disease.

Twenty years later, the well-known Chester County birder has published Ornitherapy: For Your Mind, Body and Soul.

The book, published in 2021, has photos by bird photographer Richard Crossley, a longtime Cape May resident who now lives in Florida and California. Also contributing content and design expertise was his daughter, Sophie Crossley, now a free-dive instructor in Nicaragua.

These days, Merker is making the rounds to talk about her book and promote its philosophy. She’s also studying to be a certified nature and forest therapy guide.

Is ornitherapy a new term? What does it mean?

It’s not a new concept. People have been practicing these deeper connections with nature for their therapeutic benefit for thousands of years. Indigenous people were very well-practiced at it.

The first reference I found to the term was in a 1979 British Journal of Medicine article by a Dr. A.F. Cox. He stated that birdwatching was just as effective as any tranquilizer, but cheaper and safer, without the side effects.

The way I define ornitherapy is: a practice of mindful observation of birds which benefits our mind, body, and spirit. Birds offer gateways into deeper experiences with nature. Ornitherapy amplifies the boosts of well-being that nature provides.

How is ornitherapy different from regular birding?

It has a couple of the tenets of mindfulness. One is an awareness that you are in the moment watching birds with the goal to slow yourself down. You are being intentional.

It’s also a matter of being without judgment, just letting the experience be what it will be without worrying if you got the best look at something or whether you have your camera with you. I certainly have to continuously remind myself to just enjoy the experience. It’s an attitude of feeding our curiosity and wonder. Nature observation helps our minds take a break.

Numerous studies have shown the benefits — both physical and mental — of being in nature. What makes birds, in particular, such a special gateway?

Yes, there is a multitude, and they just keep coming. This is fantastic because it fully supports many different practices — whether it be watching birds or practices like forest bathing or ecotherapy.

But birds are charismatic, and they are everywhere — in cityscapes, in desert areas, in our own backyards. We are attuned to them because, visually, they capture our attention as they move about in front of us. And they sing, providing a soundtrack to our lives, whether we know it or not. It’s easy to be awed by birds.

One study that directly involves birds came out in 2017, published by the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom with support of the British Trust for Ornithology and the University of Queensland in Australia. It suggests that people living in areas with more birds and a biodiverse ecosystem are less likely to suffer from stress, are less depressed and less prone to anxiety. But the best part is that they don’t even have to know anything about birds in order to reap these benefits. They just have to be surrounded by these dynamic ecosystems.

Another interesting study came out in 2020 from California Polytechnic State University. Two study groups took hikes, one infused with artificial birdsong, the other without. The participants were not told the purpose of the study. After the hike, researchers took measured surveys of the participants’ overall well-being. The group that heard the birdsong had a markedly boosted sense of well-being.

Tell us about your book.

Throughout the book, we aim to guide people into deeper connections with birds. We do this through what we call focused explorations. We invite our readers to dive deeper into paying attention to things they might miss — how a bird moves its tail for balance, or how it might use its bill to crack a seed open.

One practice I love is just finding a place to sit quietly, observing the world around me. The longer we sit, the closer birds and other animals will come to us, enhancing that experience. We help our readers learn how to do that.

We also include a journaling section. We believe this prompts introspection and helps people reflect on their observations — how did we relate to the birds in that moment? It enhances focus in a cathartic way. Also, we want our readers to take some authorship of this book and have ownership of their own experience with ornitherapy.

Tell us about your own experience with ornitherapy.

I have used nature as my go-to medicine as far back as I can remember. But this experience of using birds truly in the most healing way was during a battle I had with an aggressive form of breast cancer 20 years ago. I had no idea how my love for birds and birding would be my constant companion as I walked my journey toward recovery.

It was shortly after 9/11 and my husband was activated as a Navy reservist to go to Saudi Arabia. We had two sons, ages 5 and 7. We thought that would be one of the hardest things our family would face. Unfortunately, things got a little more challenging.

During this difficult time, there were times when I needed to escape and be by myself. Being in the grip of a cancer diagnosis can be all-consuming. More than ever, I needed to find balance and grounding so I could be a good mom for my kids.

The morning after I lost my hair, before my family awoke, I grabbed my binoculars and went to one of my favorite places along the Brandywine Creek — the Struble Trail. I knew that the birds and nature were not going to judge me for how I looked without hair, or how I felt, and that I could truly be myself, and forget about all my fears and worries.

It was the height of spring migration, and birdsong was abundant. I picked out the song of a cerulean warbler, which is rare in our area, and found him perched atop a tulip tree, singing. He was standing in front of a nest that held his mate. I began to practice mindful birding, watching the birds and forgetting about what was going on in my life. I recognized that this bird, too, faces challenges of survival. It had just winged its way from wintering grounds in South America, thousands of miles. And this bird family, too, was attempting to raise their young.

I realized I was not different from the warbler. Just another being trying to survive and raise my young.

At the time, I didn’t realize I was practicing ornitherapy. I had not read anything about it. This isn’t something doctors at the cancer center were talking about. It just naturally happened for me. And now I know why.

I felt awkward about throwing the hair that I lost during treatment in the trash — the symbolism of that. Instead, I put it in a suet cage and hung it outside my kitchen window. It delighted me and made the loss less painful when I watched a tufted titmouse pull strands of my hair away, hopefully to line its nest for its young. A symbol of hope which I desperately needed, and which the birds continuously provided. Birds are there for all of us if we allow them to be.