Joe Harkness has been writing his Bird Therapy blog for the last three years. He has written for Birdwatch magazine, The Curlew and the i newspaper, amongst others. Joe also speaks about his experiences and has recorded three ‘tweets of the day’ for BBC Radio 4. He works as a Special Educational Needs Coordinator and has worked with vulnerable groups for nine years. He lives in Norfolk.


Six years ago, I came close to taking my own life on more than one occasion. It was the culmination of many years of negative choices and behaviours that left me debt-ridden, addicted and despondent. I had to break in order to rebuild and the breakdown was massive. An implosion of thought processes, cannoning and careering around in circles and tangents until hitting a metaphorical brick wall and starting over. Various remedies papered over the cracks; self-medication was replaced by actual medication, counselling released some of the trapped thoughts, but ultimately, hope came in feathered and winged form – through birds and birdwatching.

I always hit a stumbling block with the name of the hobby itself – birdwatching. We are never truly just watching birds and for me, that’s the exquisite beauty of it. Birds enliven all of our senses and to immerse yourself in the sensory experience they offer, is in many ways, akin to meditation. Yes, birds and observing them, their colours, their nuances, is a visually pleasing experience, but think about the other senses that are engaged. The smells of wild places can be a powerful reminder of a moment shared – the savoury flavours of saltwater – the sweet tropical aroma of gorse – the flavours of nature. And the sounds…

Birdsong is incredible. So are their calls. They are so varied yet in time, so recognisable. From the repetitive shunt of the Chiffchaff signalling the breeding season in with stuttering song. To the evocative piping of waders across coastal saltmarshes. We hear the birds and then once we have learned what it is that we are hearing, we listen; and then ultimately, we know. Right now, as I write this. I can hear the ‘teacher’ call of a Great Tit, the distant chuntering of a Song Thrush and the soft jangling melody of a Dunnock. It’s bliss.


That’s another point – birds are so consistent – in a way that people rarely are. From getting to know local places and my garden bird community, I know roughly what to expect at most times of the year. Obviously, the adrenalin rush associated with finding something unexpected, is wonderful, but in its inconsistency, it can leave you wanting more. I settle for the everyday. The humble Wren or the regular pair of blue tits on the seed feeder – they are a constancy and a connection – my anchor to the present.

Nature reserves have their place in my Bird Therapy too. They are a safe place, much like my patch; and whilst they exist to protect and preserve, they can be a haven for us as well as wildlife. The key element here is that every single person in the boundaries of a reserve has a shared interest. A desire to experience and to be close to, to feel, nature. Our calling card of optical equipment hangs around our necks and over our shoulders, acting as a unifying code, unspoken but obvious. Several RSPB reserves are mentioned in my book – specifically Titchwell and Strumpshaw Fen - local (ish) and with both holding specially reserved places in my heart - as many reserves do for many other people.

Strumpshaw was my childhood stomping ground, along with Salhouse Broad, and with its range of habitats and species, contained in the confined safety of a gigantic reedbed, a circular path and an arterial river, it’s a wondrous place. This diversity is another theoretical element covered in my book, describing how a place can be restorative for us, both in general and in times of stress. Simply put, biodiverse outdoor places are good for us – you know what to do.

Joe's book 'Bird Therapy' is published on 13th June 2019 with Unbound.