Tom Ferguson recalls driving through cool winter air, making his way to Jordan Lake in the early morning of Jan. 1.
He drove with anticipation of seeing a bald eagle, hoping that it would be his first bird. Instead, he found crows, cardinals and blue jays flying above him.
Upon noticing and following a hawk, tears began to fill his eyes and he uttered the words “thank you.”
“I was beat. I was so beat that I didn’t know what to do, and I had tried everything,” Rise CEO Tom Ferguson said. “I think birds saved my life.”
Formerly Rise Biscuits and Donuts, Ferguson founded Rise Southern Biscuits & Righteous Chicken in 2012. Rise has since expanded to 17 locations in North Carolina, Kansas, Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia.
Once Rise began to take off, Ferguson said the stress of franchising and operating a business caused him to have a nervous breakdown. He also found himself in rehab after self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.
“He was depressed and had a lot of anxiety,” Ferguson’s wife, Gray Ferguson, said. “It’s just really hard being a CEO and all of the responsibilities that come with that.”
Last December, Tom said he was looking for a pill to make him better until he met with a doctor who had another suggestion.
“He said, ‘You’re not really an addict, you’re not really bipolar, all you need is a hobby,’” Tom said. “For some reason I had been thinking about bird-watching like that was something I was going to do at some point.”
Shortly after, Tom said he researched bird-watching, joined three bird clubs and started partaking in "the big year" — a personal challenge among birders who try to identify as many species as possible in one year.
“I travel a lot with work so I go to different places and go bird-watching while I’m there,” Tom said. “I think I’ve been to 20 states bird-watching this year, and I’ve seen 326 species.”
One of the bird clubs Ferguson joined is the New Hope Audubon Society, a group that promotes conservation and the enjoyment of birds and wildlife in Chatham, Durham and Orange counties.
New Hope Audubon Society Vice President David Anderson said that aside from getting in touch with nature, bird-watching allows people to figure things out.
“It’s detective work that you’re figuring out what you’re looking at, what you’re hearing,” Anderson said. “You’re hearing the songs and then determining what the bird is from the songs and then it’s kind of a fun puzzle to put together.”
Tom said he realized that he had been a workaholic his entire life and after starting his own business, he didn’t know how to release that.
“I didn’t know how to rebalance myself, so when I started birding, all of a sudden I had to learn something from scratch,” Tom said. “There’s a lot to it and you make mistakes in the beginning, and that learning curve is nice because I haven’t had to do that in a long, long time.”
Gray said when her husband is bird-watching, he is relaxed, focused and generally happy.
“I’m just really grateful that Tom has found birding,” Gray said. “Me, as well as my girls and our whole family, we’ve really seen a definite impact in his personality and his level of happiness since he’s started this.”
Tom said bird-watching has allowed him to slow down, check his ego and become more empathetic.
“I’ll have someone come work for me and they will make a mistake and I’m like, ‘Why did a bonehead do that for?'” Tom said. “But then I made mistakes with birding because I’m learning something from scratch.”
After realizing the impact it has made on him, Tom said he wants to teach others about bird-watching and how it can help others struggling with mental health. Some of the ways he does this is through a podcast, blog posts and talks.
“I was really really in a dark place a year ago. I’m in a really happy place right now and I give birds a piece of that credit,” Tom said. “I just said I’m going to spend the rest of my life talking about the benefits.”
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