Bird Therapy by Joe Harkness – Being with birds and experiencing a new hope

Mental health, mindfulness and bird watching – a combination that forms the theme of this book. It is not a self help guide, more of a record of one person’s discovery of how he found help for his mental health issues in watching birds. He does, however, add at the end of each chapter a list of recommendations for people who feel inspired to try similar actions. He is eager to point out that his particular type of birdwatching is not the obsessive twitching which sees people hurtling around the countryside on the rumour of a rare bird to view. His brand of birdwatching is more “Taking notice of birds” than obsessing about rare sightings, although the text notes whenever they appear often in surprising circumstances. Starting with a strong Foreword by Chris Packham, this book details a gradual discovery of a new way of life which is based on regular and repeated visits to places where birds are to be found. Harkness is also quick to point out that it not only “official” nature reserves and bird sanctuaries which offer sightings and indeed the pleasure of being with birds, but also town centres and built up areas are occasionally scenes where they can be experienced. This is an important book as it stresses that experiencing birds in their natural habitat is transforming and can make so much difference to a life. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this unusual book for the tour for the book.


The beginning of the book echoes Packham’s Foreword in that it reveals how close Harkness came to suicide. His work as a teacher of special needs young people calls on reserves not only of time and effort, but emotional reserves which affect him on many levels. He discovers that finding birds and learning to identify them gives him pleasure and enjoyment which he experiences as an easing of pressure which he feels intensely. He does not find it easy to become involved initially; more established birdwatchers do not welcome him at sites, he struggles to find a local group, and his first forays into social media are criticised. It takes him a while to gain confidence, to begin to establish how, when and where is best for him to experience birds. He has a chapter about listing sightings, the ticking off of species, the obsessive noting of when and where he has seen them. While he has obviously kept records of dates and places, he decides not to be obsessive about it. He decides that he will take part in surveys and projects that look at bird populations, that revel in the presence of birds in unexpected places. He realises that getting a “patch” where he can regularly visit and explore all the possibilities is necessary for his well being as well as do the research. He finds examples of people being helped by enjoying nature, the variety of habitats, other creatures apart from birds. He writes eloquently of his experiences finding birds, and how it improves his mood.


It is only at the end of the book that he acknowledges that  not everyone is able to access the best areas for bird watching, as they often involve long walks on uneven ground. He applauds the moves towards boarding walkways so wheelchairs can pass.  He also argues the case for attracting birds to gardens with food and other provision. He is also so confident of his discoveries that he hopes “influencers” and medical practitioners will take note. This is a significant book which I hope will be read and found useful by many people. Even if there is little interest in birds themselves, there is much encouragement to experience nature, discover the importance of one’s own company, gain a new perspective on life in this refreshing book.