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The Bird That Changed My Life

A grave injury led to Tammah Watts's enduring passion for birdwatching.

Dominique Labrecque, used with permission.
Dominique Labrecque, used with permission.

An injury from a medical procedure unexpectedly left Tammah Watts struggling with debilitating chronic pain and, eventually, depression. After years of suffering, she found a savior in an unexpected form: a small bird perched outside her window. The encounter ignited Watts’s passion for birdwatching, lifting her from despair and infusing her life with joy, nature, adventure, and connection. Striving to share her passion, Watts recently crafted a memoir-turned-manual: Keep Looking Up: Your Guide to the Powerful Healing of Birdwatching.

How did birdwatching benefit your mental health?

For years I was in my home, feeling trapped. I had looked out the window thousands of times, but this one time I saw fluttering a little yellow bird, flitting from branch to branch. It caught my attention and curiosity, and I leaned out the window to watch it. It connected me to nature, a whole world that I hadn’t been able to see because of my pain and grief; I was locked in darkness.

I became more curious: I got a guidebook, looked online, and eventually joined the local Audubon chapter and connected with other people. I can’t express how much that one bird led to life again. This beautiful bird cast sunshine over my soul.

Birds are truly everywhere. I take into consideration folks who may not be able to go outdoors, for health issues or other reasons, but you can still connect with birds through a window or doorway. Birds present themselves in all kinds of settings—a pigeon in a city or a bird at the beach, lake, park, or farm. People can go out as they are; birds have no requirements or demands of us.

When my mom fell ill, I was caring for her day in and day out. I felt a desperation to do a good job, to care for her in a loving way. One day, I was standing outside on the balcony, and a hummingbird came and sat on the ledge. I just stayed in the present moment, connecting with that bird. I didn’t feel anxiety—thinking I wasn’t doing this right, belaboring what had already occurred, catastrophizing. Instead, I thought, My mom is fine, albeit challenged. And I am fine—yes with pain, yes with other circumstances, but I am fine. Connecting with birds can remind us to stay in the present moment. Birds can lift us up and help us soar above difficult challenges.