I’ve always loved barn owls. So, when a pair took up residence in the nook of a tree close to my garden early last summer, attempting not to resign myself to lockdown gloom, I was eager to see them. Every day on my lockdown walk, I stopped by the tree and looked upwards. And it wasn’t long before I found one, perched on a branch no doubt thinking about what to catch for breakfast! What I didn’t realise then, though, is what effect these birds would have over the next few months on my mood.
There’s definitely something about barn owls. Something the ancient Greeks took as good fortune but the Romans read often as a signal of imminent death! Is it their heart shaped face? Or their piercing scream? Or is it just the fact that you only ever tend to catch a brief, ghostly glimpse of them as one swoops past you in the dusky half-light?
Whatever their attraction, my interaction with these birds definitely improved my mental wellbeing. Stopping every day, looking closely and finding these magnificent birds was making me feel happy. I didn’t know how but it was!
What does the science say?
The science is very clear. The evidence suggests that being in nature has an enormous effect on our brains and our behaviour, helping to reduce anxiety and increase creativity and attention span.
Researchers in Finland found that people who lived in a city but walked for twenty minutes a day in an urban park or wood reported much greater stress relief than those who walked for the same amount of time through the city centre.
Science is even beginning to point to the fact that being in nature makes us kinder and more generous.
In a study published in 2014 at The University of California, Berkeley, participants were exposed to scenes from nature (which had been independently rated for their beauty) and then they played two economics games to measure their generosity and trust. Those who had seen more beautiful natural scenes acted more generously and trustingly in the games.
So, clearly engaging with nature is good for us.
What can we do to connect with nature more often?
The mental health charity, Mind, has plenty of ideas (https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/nature-and-mental-health/ideas-to-try-in-nature/) :
You don’t need to go looking for a barn owl in the countryside, of course. Spending a bit of time each day in the park could be a simple place to start. Stop to watch a squirrel clambering around in a tree or a dog chasing a ball.
Or just get outside near your house and look at a spider building a web or a goldfinch eating from a bird feeder.
However you manage to be outside, stop, look and you will find nature. Do it regularly and you’ll feel the benefits.
And maybe, just maybe, you’ll catch a glimpse of a ghostly white predator hunting in the half-light.