For encounters with unusual birds, there is no need to go off the beaten track to some remote wilderness lodge or wildlife reserve in Africa or South America. Even the most time-poor and casual of bird-lovers can spot these avian beauties in the world’s great cities – and enjoy a decent cup of coffee at the same time. All they have to do is look up.
During my years as the “Urban Birder”, on Springwatch, Countryfile and The One Show among other programmes, I have visited more than 270 cities to sample their ornithological riches – and I have yet to be disappointed. In the United States, I once watched a red-naped sapsucker probe a solitary palm tree on a tiny traffic island on Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood; it should have been in the forests of the Rocky Mountains, more than 1,000 miles away.
In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I discovered a building site close to my hotel where I notched up an incredible 60 species, including some on the migration path to Britain. Common whitethroat, sedge warbler and red-backed shrike were among them.
Perhaps my most mind-blowing urban discovery was a population of long-eared owls which spends the winter in northern Serbia. One town, Kikinda, is known as “The owl capital of the world”. Walking around the snow-covered main square was like being on the set of a Harry Potter film, with more than 800 long-eared owls using the trees as daytime roosts. Having taken many birding groups to the city since, I have been made a “Son of Kikinda” by the locals and re-christened David Lindovich.
These are unusual highlights, but new scientific evidence published this week suggests that even the most ordinary of birds can have a positive effect on our mental health and wellbeing in an urban setting. The study, led by Dr Daniel Cox from the University of Exeter, found that lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress were associated with the number of birds people saw in the afternoon, irrespective of the species.