Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific

By Donald Kroodsma

Princeton University Press, 2016; 314 pages; $24.95

Birdsong maven Donald Kroodsma’s travel journal is a welcome addition to the cycling-road-trip genre that began, over a century ago, with Thomas Stevens’ Around the World on a Bicycle, which chronicled a globegirdling solo journey by high-wheel penny-farthing across the U.S., Europe, and Asia in the 1880s. Cycling has improved over the years: Kroodsma’s bike is far lighter and has twenty-six more gears than Stevens’ direct-crank behemoth; roads are now paved (Stevens had to follow railway rights-of-way over the Rockies and dirt or gravel most of the rest of his journey); and crosscountry touring maps guide Kroodsma and his son David along scenic byways with strategically spaced campgrounds, hostels, and motels. This is no tale of path-breaking hardship or endurance.

There is a bit of human drama, to be sure, but only a little bit. Kroodsma is a morning person, eager to get on the road and listen to the songbirds’ dawn chorus; David is laid back and likes to sleep in. Father and son are at opposite ends of their professional arcs—David is fresh out of college, unsure of what he wants to do next; Donald, exasperated with the petty politics of an academic career three decades after graduate school, is correspondingly unsure of what he wants to do next. It’s the sort of existential backdrop that, in 1974, propelled to best-seller status Robert Pirsig’s father-son, cross-country travelogue, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. To underscore the similarity, son David carries Pirsig’s book along for trailside reading, and Kroodsma refers to it from time to time.

It’s the author’s knowledge of birdsong, however, that makes this book so delightful. Where other birders tick off entries in their life lists sighting-by-sighting, Kroodsma does it listening-by-listening, a particular advantage since many observations on this trip are made long before the crack of dawn. Page after page is filled with such exuberant identifications as “Yes, rock wren! I know well the wren’s buzzy, ringing call, an isolated pdzee…and a robin’s qui-qui-qui calls, then tut-tut tut-tut-tut-tut…western wood pee-wee.”

The most appealing feature of this book is that on virtually every page there are QR codes (for the unsmart- phoned, those little squares with dots) that link directly to one of 381 recordings of songbirds (and sometimes humans) referred to in the text. You can scan the code with your phone and start listening along with the author (or visit http://listeningtoacontinentsing.com/ for a state-by-state list of linked sounds).

Despite Kroodsma’s considerable descriptive skills, reading his writing without playing the accompanying audio would be like taking a tour of the Louvre while blindfolded. Since I stopped every few paragraphs to call up a virtuoso songbird—often with ambient sounds of wind, rain, or running water that made me feel I was traveling with him—it took me much longer than usual to read the book. But, after all, it’s a bicycle trip.

Recent Stories

Monitoring the fate of Southern Californian kelp requires a long view.