A review by Ernie Jardine
Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific
by Donald Kroodsma
Princeton University Press, 2016
336 pages, $29.95–hardcover
Anyone for a bike ride? How about a 4,200-mile bike ride across the continent? Count me out—I can feel that bicycle seat right now!
The ride alone would justify the writing of a book, but the biker in this case happens to be Donald Kroodsma, the greatly respected author of The Singing Life of Birds, Birdsong by the Seasons, and The Backyard Birdsong Guides. The title of his most recent book provides some clues about its content. Anyone familiar with Kroodsma and his work must know that the focus of the book can only be birdsong—and not just comments about birdsong, but a detailed analysis of each song, down to notes, patterns, repetition, and duration.
Kroodsma describes his approach as “deep listening,” a way to get to know a bird’s personality. He would encourage the reader not to use “superficial tricks” just to identify a song. Yes, birding deals with species, but Kroodsma asserts that each individual of a species has something special to say. Why does it sing this way, and what is the bird expressing with its song? Why does it switch to another song after repeating a particular version 10 times? Get to know each individual. This kind of close observation, according to Kroodsma, is the best way to learn birdsong.
The author applies this approach during each stage of his journey, whenever he comes across new birds or encounters new songs from already familiar birds. He compares dawn songs to daytime songs and western songs to eastern versions; he opines on splits and lumps; and he muses about hybrid flickers, dialects in Red-winged Blackbirds and Black-capped Chickadees, speciation in the “Western” Flycatcher and Warbling Vireo, and the always confusing question of Yellow-breasted Chat taxonomy. We discover each new bird and each new song along with Kroodsma, and we witness his passion to understand more.
Early on in the trip, at 5:29 one morning, Kroodsma is listening to an American Robin. Unlike most of us, he doesn’t just hear the caroling phrases and high, squeaky hisselly notes. He wonders why the bird sings such disparate sounds, why there are two different phrases, and what their different purposes might be. Then he compares the robin to the cardinal singing at the same time. Northern Cardinals repeat one song many times before switching to another, often counter-singing, unlike this robin or a Wood Thrush, where each successive song is different. Kroodsma counts the songs before his cardinal switches to a new one, wanting to discover the pattern. After recording a specific song, he will view it on his computer, slow it down, and analyze its elements to his heart’s content—a regular activity that is part of his own deep listening.
As the author himself admits, this approach to birdsong has led to disagreement with other scientists in his field. He sums up this friction by commenting that “I take birdsong seriously,” maybe implying that his critics don’t look or think deeply enough. For instance, Kroodsma’s research has refuted the generally accepted notion that the more songs a male bird sings, the better his chances of attracting females and breeding. Kroodsma seems particularly disgruntled that his research on Three-wattled Bellbirds in Costa Rica was not well received. Bellbirds are closely related to the “hard-wired” flycatchers, which do not learn their song but sing genetically encoded songs; however, Kroodsma’s research showed that not only do the bellbirds learn songs but they also change them from one year to the next to match whatever the other local males are singing. They’re still learning, even as adults.
While birdsong is the primary focus of the book, Kroodsma also offers interesting historical, geographic, and human sidelights from his travels. He visits sites connected to the U.S. Civil War and the American Revolution, ponders the ancient seas of Kansas and the geysers of Yellowstone, and tells the stories of interesting people and their dialects.
Donald Kroodsma has a 24-year-old son named David, and it just so happens that David rides the second bike on this fantastic journey. It is emphasized that he is not a morning person, while it’s not unusual for the elder Kroodsma to be up and about by 4:00 a.m., organizing his audio gear and venturing out to do some deep listening and recording even before the sun comes up. Kroodsma is a proud father, but the tension that develops at times between the two illustrates the effect of 24-hour contact, face to face, day in and day out, month after month—not to mention sharing a tent.
Despite the pressures of life on the road, father and son also share an admiration for each other. We travel along with the two as they suffer through rain, wind, flat tires, phlebitis, and unruly dogs, and we revel in their highs and successes when karma balances things out. At one point, Kroodsma reads a comment in a log book at a biker hostel in Kentucky: “Enjoy every minute. It’ll soon be over.” He realizes that it’s not just the bike ride this comment refers to.
An accompanying website, ListeningToAContinentSing.com, provides 381 very good recordings of over 200 bird species. It can be accessed directly from the internet or with an app on your smart phone that scans the bar codes in the book. The recordings, all downloadable, can be listened to in the order in which they appear in the book or browsed by location or taxonomy.
Each recording is accompanied by a picture of the bird, a usually quite detailed song analysis, and a list of the birds heard in the background. The analyses amplify what is being described in the text. While some are fairly straightforward, many take a more involved approach, analyzing patterns, repetitions, song sequence changes, and duration. Some songs, such as those of the Red-eyed Vireo and the Say’s Phoebe, are analyzed in great detail, and I can’t help but think that these discussions might be more useful to someone studying or conducting research on birdsong than to the average birder. To be fair, Kroodsma does emphasize that he is not simply teaching song identification, but rather a method for deep listening, and his explanations do illustrate this unique approach.
This is a fun book to read, especially if you enjoy birdsong and want to learn more about our North American birds. The adventures and stories along the way are a bonus. Nancy Haver’s many fine drawings add further depth and enjoyment to the book. The index, an important feature that is often underappreciated, is very well organized and helpful, and makes finding specific topics and references simple.
Birdsong transports Kroodsma to a more spiritual state at times. In a reflective moment, he quotes Emily Dickinson: “I hope you love birds, too. It is economical. It saves going to Heaven,” then adds that “Yes, Heaven is now.” Many of us would agree.
– Ernie Jardine is a lifelong birder, conservationist, and nature lover. He is the author of Bird Song: Defined, Decoded, Described (2011) and of Bird Song: Identification Made Easy (1996). Jardine maintains a website of bird vocalizations, birdsongidentification.com, and was a consultant for “The Messenger,” a documentary about bird conservation.
Jardine, E. 2017. Listening Deep to the Diversity of America’s Birds [a review of Listening to a Continent Sing, by Donald Kroodsma]. Birding 49: 66-67.