A cross-country celebration of birdsong

Listening to a Continent Sing
Listening to a Continent Sing

It is always a pleasure to listen to masters talk about their passion. And so it is here, as Don Kroodsma, the world’s leading expert on birdsong, takes us on a cross-country bicycle journey from Virginia to Oregon, listening to birds and explaining the magic and mystery in what he hears along the way. For almost 5,000 miles, one group of species replaces another as changing habitats roll by, and we hear a constant stream of singing. We’re invited to join in on his continent-long listening adventure, since 381 recordings accompany the book, all accessible by scanning QR codes published in the margins of the pages (or by visiting ListeningToAContinentSing.com).

Kroodsma is a champion listener; he learned early on. Following his undergraduate training, he went to the University of Michigan Biological Station, near Pellston, to study with famed ornithologist Sewall Pettingill. For a project required by the advanced course, he gave Kroodsma a parabolic reflector and a microphone and told him to go out and record birdsong. And record he did.

While Pettingill didn’t know it, the assignment would change both Kroodsma and ornithology forever. Kroodsma went on to a doctoral program that involved birdsong and song learning — specifically, how young Bewick’s Wrens learn their songs, and from whom. And over the years, he would publish prolifically on what he learned about birdsong.

In this book, he celebrates every part of the natural world, from ancient geology to current relief and vegetation patterns, and from the sounds of birds to the sounds of frogs, trees, geysers, and the dialects of people he stops to talk to. No one but Don Kroodsma could have written this book, as no one hears birdsong as he does.

He was not alone during the trip. His son, David, an experienced bicyclist who has ridden from California to Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of South America, to highlight the dangers of climate change, rode with him. David has an M.S. degree in physics from Stanford, but he may be prouder of being captain of Stanford’s national-champion ultimate Frisbee team.

The Kroodsmas chose to ride the TransAmerica Trail, established for America’s bicentennial celebration in 1976. The trail was laid out to incorporate as many historic sites as possible. Beginning at Revolutionary War sites and moving through Civil War battlefields, the pair passed through Appalachia, Kentucky, the Ozarks, and the Great Plains before heading to the Rockies, over multiple continental divides, through sagebrush and basins and ranges, and more.

The trip was also about father-and-son bonding. And the bantering between Don and David about birds isn’t just meant for David — it’s for you and me as well. We’re part of the team, and we benefit greatly. My only suggestion is that they should have pushed the Pacific Ocean farther west, so the book didn’t end so quickly.

Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific, by Donald Kroodsma, Princeton University Press, 2016, hardcover, 336 pages, $29.95, £22.95.

Founding Editor Eldon Greij.
Founding Editor Eldon Greij.

Eldon Greij’s column “Amazing Birds” appears in every issue of BirdWatching magazine. Subscribe. This book review appeared in the April 2017 issue. Eldon is professor emeritus of biology at Hope College, located in Holland, Michigan, and the founder of Birder’s World magazine.

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This feature article is from the April 2017 issue of BirdWatching.

Eldon Greij

Eldon Greij

Eldon Greij is professor emeritus at Hope College, located in Holland, Michigan, where he taught ornithology and ecology for many years. He is the founder of Birder’s World magazine and the author of our popular column “Amazing Birds.”

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