In Listening to a Continent Sing, Donald Kroodsma details a cross-country cycling trip he took with his son, David, in order to, literally, listen to the continent sing. Throughout, he describes in lyrical prose all of the birds he heard as they pedaled west along the TransAmerica Route—established in 1976 for the “Bikecentennial” of our country—and all of the adventures that he and his son experienced along the way. They began their journey in Yorktown, Virginia on May 4. Read on for a behind-the scenes glimpse of the symphony that is the Virginian countryside in mid-spring. Be sure to use the QR codes, found in the book, to hear the birds for yourself!
On May 4, day 1 of the journey, Kroodsma describes listening to the world wake up around him from inside the tent, his son sleeping beside him (“Best not to get up before the sun,” he says.).
A robin begins to sing, 5:34 a.m. according to my watch, about half an hour before sunrise. His low, sweet carols drop from above one by one, cheerily, cheer-up, cheerio, cheerily, and I am soon silently singing with him, three to five carols over a few seconds, then a brief pause. I feel his tempo, counting the number of carols in the next package and pausing, counting and pausing, his initial measured pace calming. I try to stretch each quarter-second carol into a second or more, slowing his performance, relishing the varying patterns in pitch and rhythm, listening and watching as miniature musical scores float through my mind.
Day 2 brings a trip to Malvern Hill, sight of a bloody Civil War battle nearly 150 years before. In memory of that battle, the intrepid duo is subdued as they listen to the sweet call of a field sparrow.
Emerging from the insanity of this scene is the requiem now offered by a field sparrow nearby. His gentle whistles accelerate, sliding down the scale, each whistle a little shorter and lower than the one before, a two-second lament for all who suffered here. Every few seconds he repeats his mournful song, over and over, never-ending. In the distance I hear two others, each with a unique cadence, each offering his own comment on the scene that his ancestors some hundred generations ago would have witnessed here.
Still, silence … until a single, tentative chewink of an eastern towhee pierces the quiet. With my right hand, I fumble beneath the sleeve over my left wrist to punch the light button on my watch, leaning over the left handlebar to catch a glimpse 5:25 a.m., 45 minutes before sunrise. The call is contagious, as chewinks now erupt from seemingly every roadside bush. In less than a minute I hear a feeble song, then a louder one, and soon the bushes sing, drink-your-teeeeeee, two strongly enunciated introductory notes followed by a rapid series of repeated notes. The birds ease into it, at first repeating one song several times, much as they do later in the morning, but then the warm-up is over and no holds are barred.
For the next two months, father and son cycled across the United States listening to hundreds of birds, meeting new people, and enjoying the great outdoors together. Read Listening to a Continent Sing and let Kroodsma take you along for the ride. And if you’re interested in the story behind the cover design, check out the PUP Design tumblr!