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Book Review: Listening to a Continent Sing by Donald Kroodsma

July 15th, 2021 | 10 min read

By Kayla Snow

Donald Kroodsma. Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. 336 pp, $21.95.

It’s early spring as I sit on my porch reading the opening pages of Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific by Donald Kroodsma. I hear all around me a chorus of birdsong. While I know the names of most of the birds in my front yard and know a few by ear, the book I’m just beginning to read is already showing me just how much I have to learn. The pages of the book are filled with QR codes recording the songs of birds that Donald Kroodsma enjoys on his 71-day journey across the continent. I scan one — the Tufted Titmouse —that I’ve just read about. Donald hears his in Virginia in 2003. I hear mine in North Carolina in 2021. As the QR code comes to life, I listen to the short clip of the birdsong, and, to my surprise, a Tufted Titmouse perched somewhere among the trees in my yard answers the song. Amused, I repeat the experiment, playing the QR code, pausing to listen, hearing the titmouse in the yard answer. In that moment, I realize that this book will not be a quick read. To fully experience the book requires time, but I suppose that listening, when done hospitably, is never really about speed; it is about being curious, patient, and present.

Published in 2016, the book catalogs the 2003 TransAm bicycle tour of father-son pair Donald and David Kroodsma. Donald’s journey as told here offers the sweet exploration of how dialect (both bird and human) is at once social and individual. As a professor of ornithology at the University of Massachusetts, Donald explores birdsong dialect as he rides across dialectal divides, hearing the subtle — and sometimes not-so-subtle — shifts in song as he moves across the country. For Donald, these shifts in birdsong offer a way to imagine the more subtle and intimate lives of the birds. He says,

“I hear each bird not as a species to be identified and listed, which is a rather limited endgame, but as an individual with something to say, much as I listen to any human individual with something to say, not just someone to be identified” (10).

Donald has spent his life studying birdsong; thus, he understands that his ability to listen carefully and curiously to birds is rare and unique. Moreover, for Donald practicing hospitable listening is, at its core, good science — a way of observing slowly and with precision for understanding. And it’s good humanity too.

The form of the book, however, is not purely scientific; it is also a story that marks a transition in Donald’s life. A work of travel literature by genre, the book mixes the disciplines of the natural sciences and history with travel to form a diary-like log. From the history of the Civil War and the journey of Native Americans to the geological records stored in the hills and lakes of the Tetons — the book offers brief allusions to a variety of subjects, reinforcing all the ways one might listen to the continent. The same journey could be made with a myriad of resulting tales. There is something wonderful in the way the world collects and compiles stories in her body for us to explore. Tectonic plates shift, layering plate upon plate to form mountains at the meeting on one side and collapsing into trenches along the other side of the plate. Mountain ranges are weathered and worn over years by water and ice and catastrophe so that only the remnants of a mountain range remain. Birds of the same species share a common song, but slowly, as they drift apart, following adjacent migratory trajectories, their songs shift, so that those on one side of the invisible line sing one song while those on the other sing another kind, like a mysterious Tower of Babel for birds. This natural diversity feeds Donald’s curiosity and imagination and opens him up to the possibility of using his own bird listening skills to awaken others to that wonder.

The book, whether by design or some unintentional revelation, reveals Donald’s growing awareness of the passing of time and his own mortality. Donald bookends his journey with references to how short life is. First, Donald tells the story of the inspiration for this trip. When Donald told the owner of a bike shop that he wanted to bike across country someday, the owner replied, “Every year you don’t do it, it’s less likely you ever will.” For Donald, this passing comment became a comment that applied not only to the trip, but also to life. Later, at the end of the book, Donald quotes his favorite movie line of all time from the Shawshank Redemption: “I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying.” In the 70 days that pass between the two statements, Donald discovers that he is not on this journey simply to listen, but also to find a way to be heard himself.

After 35 years of listening to birdsong, he has learned something that he is eager to share, but he has not found a hospitable audience among the scientists and scholars that share his education. They lack the out-of-the-box thinking that Donald’s way of listening encourages. Early in their journey, Donald jokes that he has asked a co-worker to keep him posted on any developments in voluntary early retirement offers. As the journey continues, however, Donald slowly reveals that there is more truth to this joke than he initially reveals. He is no longer satisfied with his work, and, to a lesser extent, the way his life is defined by the work he is paid for.

This journey for him, then, is not only about listening to birds — though it’s certainly that — but also about finding a way to help others listen too. When David asks about his discontentment in his work, Donald answers, “I take birdsong seriously. I love listening to birds and all they have to say. I love studying them and trying to understand what they’re doing. Even the little discoveries are exciting. Some others who study birdsong aren’t quite so hampered by the gravity of it all” (266). Donald suggests that there is something more within the song to understand — some other form of knowing and appreciating to be had if only we listened a bit differently.

Because the book does not advance a particular argument about how Donald’s way of listening differs from other ornithologists, these subtle differences are not readily apparent. Donald does not provide a list or catalog of all the ways he would like to change academia. He does, however, give the impression that the most meaningful difference stems from the way he listens to birds as individuals — as animate subjects to know rather than inanimate objects to study. Where his peers and colleagues use birdsong as simple means for identification and classification, Donald hears an invitation to explore the inner lives and culture of birds.

His unique way of listening stems from his appreciation of bird dialect as an indicator of more complex relational patterns among birds, pointing at once to something individual and something communal, mirroring the nature of human dialect. Human dialect, which stems from shared language and culture among a community, is as complex and layered as the individuals who give voice to the dialect. Throughout his journey, Donald listens attentively to individuals recount their encounters with and appreciation for local birdsong. In their stories, he hears the individual account of a shared experience, an experience that is simultaneously unique and common. This point is illustrated when Donald meets Mary Lou at a campground in Kentucky. As an Appalachian native, Mary Lou’s speech patterns and tones are vastly different from Donald’s, a professor from the North East. To this point, Donald recounts, “I tell her I’m intrigued by how different her voice and mine are, fascinated by these human dialects[…] In Mary Lou’s fine voice I hear a hillbilly wisdom that eludes most folk” (66). Donald hears Mary Lou’s praise for the pileated woodpecker in the trees above as an opportunity to situate her knowledge and experience within her culture, both as something unique to her voice — her way of telling it — and to her physical and cultural environment.

Early in his career, Donald observed a similar type of bird culture reflected in bird dialect. At the end of his journey, David returns to the place where he first studied birds in graduate school from 1969 to 1972, William L. Finely National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Donald’s central chapter for his doctoral thesis focused on the way male Bewick’s wrens of this area learned birdsong. Prior to his study, the reigning theory among ornithologists was that the son learned the song from his father, but Donald observed a flexibility in the young male birds’ early birdsong that suggested they may have another way by which they learn their songs:

“For the birds I knew, such as the towhees and these wrens, the songs changed so rapidly over short distances that a young male had to be flexible, I reasoned, and instead had to learn the songs of the particular little dialect where he settled after leaving his singing father. These local dialects are widespread among songbirds but could not exist if a young male rigidly retained his father’s songs after dispersing from home” (271).

To prove his hypothesis, Donald undertook the challenge of tracking the male offspring after they left their father’s territory — a task which required careful planning, patience, and some degree of imagination on Donald’s part. The results of his study showed conclusively that the young males reject their father’s songs and learn the dialect of the communities where they eventually settle. This project changed ornithology, and it changed Donald too, as it encouraged him to listen to the bird as an individual with its own story to tell, a creature born of his father, but forging his own path in the world and singing his own songs in a new place.

While Donald was able to break through the barriers of accepted knowledge in ornithology early in his career, his more recent attempts to replicate that experience have been met with resistance and hostility. When David presses his father to provide an example of the ways academia has rejected his suggestions for improving his field, Donald offers two examples. First, he challenges the assumption that the number of songs a male bird sings is directly tied to his mating abilities. Textbooks teach that a male bird with more songs will more successfully mating than those of the same kind with fewer songs. However, Donald asserts that no evidence has been produced to support that assumption. In fact, Donald has observed that a song sparrow learns more songs early on than he actually keeps, suggesting that he narrows his song selection over time for some reason. Donald says, “if a female were really impressed with how many songs he could sing, the male who kept just one of those discarded songs would be a rock star […] But that doesn’t happen, in song sparrows or any other species.”

As Donald explains his understanding to David, he finds himself excited and energized by the intellectual stimulation and genuine scientific inquiry. This energy prompts him to offer his second example of his frustration with academia: the three-wattled bellbird. This bird is the relative of a non-learning flycatcher, but, unlike its relatives, the bellbird learns and relearns new songs every year based on the songs of the surrounding males. “No other bird that we know does that, not even any songbirds, the song-learning specialists!” Donald exclaims. While Donald offers evidence of relearning, his peers reject his claims, suggesting it is not possible simply because it is not the widely accepted understanding of how birds learn song.

Ultimately, the primary difference between the way Donald hears birdsong and the way his peers hear it stems from Donald’s curiosity, patience, and presence. He is willing to listen to the individual bird, to ask questions, and to pursue answers through the hard work of curious and patient discovery, and he wants others to participate with him.

Back on my porch, the heat of the coming summer has quieted the bird chorus. Baby birds have hatched in nests around the yard and many have already flown. The occasional call echoes through the fully-leafed trees, and I listen for an answer somewhere off in the distance. I’m still not fluent in birdsong dialect — not able to identify all the birds in my yard simply by their song, but I listen to them. As I listen, I ask, “who are you? Where did you come from? Why do you sing that song?”

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