In his fabulous book, “Listening to a Continent Sing,” professor Donald Kroodsma shares the story of a cross-country biking trip he took with his son. Kroodsma made a career from studying and identifying the nuances and variations of bird songs. This trip provided the chance to listen to birds across America in their native habitat. While the story is well-written and engaging on its own, one of the more noteworthy features of the book is the QR codes placed in the margins of many pages. These codes connect to the actual recordings Kroodsma and his son made on their trip. Being able to listen to what Kroodsma was hearing as you read his passionate account makes the narrative shine. His excited observations about the distinctive notes and pattern of the Blackcapped Chickadee or the Chipping Sparrow were a delight to read. I read this book sitting beside a lake in Virginia. As I played the recordings, I realized that birds near me were responding to the calls.
I was struck by how Kroodsma has fashioned his life around listening. He has trained his ears to be able to hear subtle and distinctive patterns of birdsongs and can differentiate not only between different types of birds, but between different examples of the same type of bird. While I can barely tell the difference between Woody Woodpecker and Foghorn Leghorn, he was able to distinguish between different males within one type of bird each claiming territory for themselves.
“Listening to a Continent Sing” helped me identify several key features of listening. First, listening is an intentional choice. Author Adam McHugh differentiates listening and hearing in his book, “The Listening Life.” He writes, “listening is a practice of focused attention. Hearing is an act of the senses, but listening is an act of the will. In listening you center not only your ears but also your mind, heart and posture on someone or something other than yourself.” We choose to listen. While doctors can measure our hearing through a variety of tests, determining our ability to listen is a trickier matter. Our culture invites us to ignore listening as well. Our world craves more and more of our attention. You will buy more, watch more, and clock more if you have a ready supply of things to hear, but little space or silence to truly listen. If listening is an intentional choice that our culture seems to work against, how will we make the space and time to cultivate true listening in our lives?
Another feature of listening made clear in “Listening to a Continent Sing” is the reality that listening is an improvable skill. Like with many things, practice makes perfect with listening. Kroodsma displays the mastery of one who has spent decades learning how to listen. He is instantly able to distinguish differences in bird songs that others completely miss. Kroodsma’s son, David, has no experience with listening to birds. Hearing him attempt to identify what he was hearing brought into sharp contrast the expertise his father possesses. When David would venture a guess as to what he was hearing, Donald would calmly correct the repeated mistakes David would make. While you may not want to dedicate years to bird songs, we can all be encouraged that practicing our listening skills now will improve those same skills for the future.
A final feature of listening that I found from this work was the truth that listening skills are not universal. Another reason that Kroodsma wanted to take this trip with his son was the realization that though he had spent many years listening to birds, he had not listened to his son as well as he would have liked. He wanted this trip to be a way to reconnect and rebuild their relationship. It is a sobering reminder that even when we do take time to listen in one area of our life, others can remain neglected. I was inspired by Kroodsma’s understanding and insight in seeing the places where his relationship was lacking and working to address that deficiency.
How much richer and fuller would your life be if you took the time to listen to those around you? You may hear them, but are you truly listening? Perhaps one aspect of a truly active and vibrant life is the ability to stop and listen to all that we hear in the world.
Patrick DeVane, senior pastor of College Parkway Baptist Church in Arnold, can be found at patrickdevane.net.
Please support OutLook by the Bay with a subscription.
OutLook by the Bay magazine and this website are made possible through the support of our advertisers and subscribers. We guarantee you’ll learn something new each issue. Please subscribe today.