Browsing Tag

Health

Environment

Natural high: why birdsong is the best antidote to our stressful lives

Dawn chorus day is a good time to celebrate the benefits to mental and physical health of birdsong – and fight for beloved species facing extinction

Stephen Moss @stephenmoss_tv

When I hear the first willow warbler of the spring, the first cuckoo, or the first booming bittern on my local patch, I feel an enormous sense of comfort and satisfaction. As the poet Ted Hughes wrote about the annual return of swifts, “They’ve made it again, which shows that the globe’s still working…”

It’s International Dawn Chorus Day on Sunday 5 May, and this year the RSPB has released a single of birdsong (currentlyat number 11 in the charts) as part of a campaign to draw attention to the dire situation facing British birdlife. Populations of once-common species such as the house sparrow, starling and swift are falling fast, while the nightingale, turtle dove and grey partridge are rapidly sliding towards extinction in Britain.

Climate change, intensive farming and pollution are just some of the genuinely existential threats to the future of our birds. And, indeed, to us. Having been a naturalist since before I can remember – more than half a century now – I’m always astonished that so many people fail to make the connection between birds’ wellbeing and our own.

Spending time connecting with the natural world is the perfect antidote to the pressures of modern life. Getting close to nature – and especially listening to birdsong – doesn’t just bring us physical benefits – it also helps improve our mental and emotional health, happiness and wellbeing. And this isn’t just some warm, fuzzy feeling.

Scientists at the University of Surrey have been studying the “restorative benefits of birdsong”, testing whether it really does improve our mood. They discovered that, of all the natural sounds, bird songs and calls were those most often cited as helping people recover from stress, and allowing them to restore and refocus their attention.

What we hear is the males of each species saying “Keep out!” to every other male, and “Come in!” to every female

In other words, birdsong is good for you – something that will hardly come as a surprise to those who tune in to Radio 4 six mornings a week to catch its 90-second Tweet of the Day.

This spring, I’ve been taking people out to listen to birdsong near my home, on the Avalon marshes in Somerset. I’m always struck by their sense of wonder at this daily wall of sound, made by so many different species. But I’m also interested in the way they choose very human imagery to describe what they hear: words such as “performers” and “orchestra” as well as “dawn chorus”.

Sometimes I hesitate to explain what is really going on, for fear of breaking the spell. For, however much we think the birds are singing to delight us, this is of course a biological process – a life-or-death struggle between individual singers.

Willow Warbler
 A willow warbler. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Put simply, what we hear is the males of each species saying “Keep out!” to every other male in the vicinity, and “Come in!” to every female. Birdsong may sound beautiful, but it is all about the race to reproduce.

For a bird like the nightingale I heard singing in Kent last week, this is a crucial time of year. This male had just flown more than 2,500 miles from its winter quarters in west Africa, arriving back a week or so ahead of any females. As soon as it gets here, it must sing its complex, haunting song for hours on end, by day and night, to ensure that he keeps hold of its territory.

If it does, it will be one of those chosen to mate when the females return. Most songbirds live only a year or two, so if it loses out this year, it may never get the chance to breed again.

Life is tough for this nightingale, and for all our migratory songbirds. And it’s not as if we don’t care. The RSPB has more than 1.2 million members, and Springwatch is one of the most popular programmes on TV. Our love of birds is deeply rooted in our very being.

For centuries, we have celebrated them in song, prose and verse. From Chaucer to Shakespeare, Wordsworth to John Clare and Shelley to the Beatles, birdsong looms large in both our literary and popular culture.Advertisement

The other night, I attended an event hosted by singer and musician Sam Lee. His show, Singing with Nightingales: Live, is a unique blend of music, folk tales and birdsong, in which Lee and his colleagues celebrate the wonder and beauty of the nightingale’s song, complete with a live feed from a wood in West Sussex. It left the audience feeling truly humbled, while reminding me of the continuing power of birdsong to inspire and move us.

It’s vital that we preserve this birdsong. When the RSPB was founded, the biggest issue was the slaughter of birds for their feathers, which were used to adorn hats.

Nightingale adult, singing, standing on log in woodland

Today, the problems are far more serious. That’s why, earlier this week, I joined a group of actors, artists, singers, scientists, poets, conservationists and campaigners – including Lee – in signing a letter asking the UK government to heed this alarm call from nature.

If you weren’t up early enough this morning to listen to the dawn chorus, it’s not too late. The birds will still be singing tomorrow, and the next day, and hopefully next spring, too. But as we contemplate what has happened to Britain’s birdlife over the past half century, can we really be sure that they will still be singing in 50 years’ time? I’m not sure that we can.

Stephen Moss is a naturalist and author based in Somerset, and course leader of the MA in travel and nature writing at Bath Spa University

International

Manipur Girl Quits Singapore Job, Brews Up Herb Tea to Empower Local Ladies!

It is around 8 am and 45-year-old Pratima is excited to begin her day. Her daily sojourn through Imphal’s Ima Keithal market or Mother’s market is a sensory onslaught of brightly coloured textiles in myriad shades, the array of spices tempering the air, and stalls bursting with fresh flowers, fruits and vegetables.

Pratima loves the all-women market but what she loves more is the cafe-cum-store where she works, hardly a kilometre from the 500-year-old market.

Pratima is one of the nine homemakers-turned-employees working at ‘Dweller Teas,’ a startup in Manipur’s capital city.

Warming up to the topic of the many benefits of the fruit, Pratima says, “Every time I drink a citrusy flavoured tisane of this fruit, I go on a nostalgic trip that reminds me of the time I spent with my grandmother.”

Founded by Elizabeth Yamben, a native of Imphal, the startup uses indigenous herbs and fruits to make organic and healthy tea infusions.

What’s more? The startup is empowering homemakers and female farmers.

The seed of the startup was sown during Elizabeth’s stint in London as a financial analyst. Though the 29-year-old was grateful for her new life in the bustling city, she felt restless, as if something remained to be done.

“I moved out of Imphal at the age of 12 in pursuit of quality education, and a thriving future. I moved to London right after I completed my education. I always wanted to do something of my own, but had very little expertise in terms of starting a business,” Elizabeth tells TBI.

Elizabeth Yamben quit her job in Singapore and moved to India to add value to indegenous resources

Soon, she took a transfer to Singapore. Once she thought she had saved up enough, she was ready to trade a cushy job, a fat salary and a secure life with a path less travelled—one fraught with risks, uncertainty and financial instability.

As anticipated, quitting her job without any concrete professional plans did not go well with her parents. “I may not have been confident about my future then, but I was sure I wanted to make a difference in my community.”

After landing in India, Elizabeth’s first step was to study and identify the local strengths of Manipur, “Football and tea are two strong points of my State. The choice was obvious,” she chuckles.

Besides, Elizabeth’s priceless memories with her grandmother revolved around herbs and its secret recipes, “I grew up in a household where traditional herbs and medicines were used every time someone would fall sick. I remember my grandmother soaking the herbs or plants overnight and making concoctions that would eliminate all our ailments.”

Even today many Indian households depend on homemade cures. So, I fused traditions and a product that is available in abundance, she adds.

With her savings Elizabeth launched ‘Dweller Teas’ in 2017.

She hired around nine women homemakers and three men. The objective of hiring women was to give a tender touch to the products. She saw how passionate the elders in her family were about using indigenous fruits and herbs.

Dweller Teas team enjoying the natural tea

The gamble worked, and today, each of its tea products is packed with the nutrients that the herbal mixtures offer along with loads of love and care from all the women involved in their manufacture.

I convert our indigenous herbs and fruits into infusions. I make them just like how I would, for my three children, says Indu, one of the employers at the cafe.

Interestingly, the growers of fruits and herbs that Elizabeth works with are all women.

There are two ways in which Elizabeth procures the harvest. She approaches the women farmers and provides them with seeds depending on the demand. Once the product is ready, she purchases it from them, thus giving them an extra source of income.

She has also collaborated with local women vendors who sell the herbs in the local markets. This way Elizabeth has also been instrumental in reducing wastage.

Giving an example, she says, “One day I was strolling in the market and came across this lady who was worried about selling her Indian olives. She told me about how the olives get wasted almost every day because there are very few takers. So, I buy her produce from her thus reducing the wastage.”

Lemongrass is another plant that is cultivated in abundance. Here too, Elizabeth helps out the farmers as she buys lemongrass for the aromatic tea she prepares with them.

There are several blends of herbs, fruits and vegetables that Elizabeth and her team use to make the tea. All of the varieties have a unique USP of their own.

For instance, their famous blend is Nong-mang-Kha or Phlogacanthus thyrsiformis plant. The antibacterial properties of the plant can cure a cold, cough and fever.

Dweller Teas uses natural herbs like Nong-mang-Kha that have antibacterial properties.

“It is a sacred plant of Manipur. It’s commonly planted for house fencing, food, medicine and to protect from the evil spirit psychologically. Surprisingly, it tastes smooth with the warmth of ginger,’ says Elizabeth.

Giving a thumbs up to Nong-mang-Kha, Joyraj, one of Dweller’s customers says, “This tea is magic! Though it is bitter, it has rich medicinal value, and the aroma of the tea is a huge relief.”

Meanwhile, red-coloured and caffeine free fruity roselle tea tastes like cranberry and contains hints of citrus olive. It is rich in vitamin C, and is traditionally consumed to improve metabolism.

As she is sourcing her raw materials from nature, she makes sure she gives back in kind and thus all the packaging at Dweller Teas is biodegradable. At the store, the tea is sold in banana leaves and paper boxes.

Dweller Teas practices eco-friendly packaging

Up until recently, all the Dweller’s products were sold offline at their store. Last year, Elizabeth ventured into the online platform. Her products are now sold pan India. She plans to open five such cafe-cum-stores in Imphal by the end of this year.

From overcoming financial loses to creating her little niche, there were a lot of ups and downs in Elizabeth’s two-year-old journey. However, she remained undeterred in her mission of uplifting the locals, dwellers, homemakers and herbs.

Pratima, who has studied till class eight, had never imagined her life would take a turn making her financially independent, “I enjoy my work, and it has given me the hope for a better future. I see myself growing here; it is like carving a new path that never existed before.”

Gopi Karelia