Meet the Harvard Ornithology Professor Biking Across the Country

With school out due to COVID-19, Scott Edwards decided to make a lifelong dream a reality. Now his ride has taken on even more meaning.

As a professor and curator of ornithology at Harvard University, Scott Edwards usually spends his summers immersed in conferences, museum collections, fieldwork, and laboratories. He stays busy investigating a wide array of species and subjects, including House Finch parasites, the evolution of flightless ratites, such as the Ostrich and Emu, and the role odor and genetics play in mate choice for Leach’s Storm Petrels.

But this year, when COVID-19 halted most scientific endeavors and closed campuses across the United States, Edwards decided to attempt his dream of cycling from the Atlantic to Pacific. Mapping an approximate route, south of the Great Lakes then due west, he planned to cruise along country roads and sleep at campgrounds, expecting both to be empty enough for social distancing. 

Two weeks before his departure, though, people nationwide took to the streets to protest the killing of George Floyd by a police officer, police brutality, and systemic racial injustice. On the same day as Floyd’s death, May 25, a viral video of a racist encounter in Central Park involving a Black birder and white woman further fanned the flames of outrage. As a result of that incident, a group of Black birders and naturalists launched Black Birders Week, a social media campaign that elevates Black voices in birding and takes on racism in the outdoors.

When Edwards learned about Black Birders Week, he created a Twitter account to participate. Then on June 6 he ceremoniously dipped his wheel in the sea off Massachusetts and started pedaling. A few days in, Edwards fixed Black Lives Matter signs to his bike and began documenting the journey on Twitter.

Audubon magazine talked to Edwards 10 days into the trip, in rural New York and about 80 miles east of Lake Erie. He discussed biking during the pandemic and protests, minorities in science, and the birds along his ride. Below is an edited version of the conversation. To keep up with Edwards, you can follow him on Twitter at @ScottVEdwards1.

Audubon: What made you decide to do this ride now?

Scott Edwards: The hard part of doing a trip like this is time. Once we were sent home by the powers that be at Harvard, it gradually occurred to me that this would be a great summer to do it. Most of the academic activities in the summer have all been canceled. It’s sort of now or never.

It's a tough time with the virus around. But, on the other hand, there’s probably not as many cars on the road and campgrounds are less crowded. Although I’m finding that stuff’s really starting to open up.

A: Logistically, how do you bike cross-country during a pandemic while being responsible and safe?

SE: My wife gave me a bunch of hand sanitizer. I have my fair share of masks, and I always put them on before going into stores. I find that not everyone cares that much. It runs the whole gamut in terms of precautions, but I try to be respectful.

I’ve been mixing it up between tent camping and the odd hotel. Some campgrounds are not open to tent campers because they don’t want you using any common facilities, whereas they may be open to folks with RVs who are completely self-contained.

I’ve also found places to stay through a website that connects cyclists to hosts. In that case, I say, ‘I’m biking through, and I’d be happy to pitch a tent in your backyard if you don’t want me coming in the house.’ I’ve met some great people through that organization.

A: When did you attach the Black Lives Matter signs and start tweeting?

SE: About two or three days in, my ride took a political bent. I thought it was a great opportunity to help support all the folks going to the protests, many of them in big cities.

Riding your bicycle solo across country at this time, I think many would say I was crazy. But you know, as some of my posts might have demonstrated, it’s not all bad news. There’s a lot of positive vibes out there, and through my tweets I am trying to shine a light on those things as well.

I’m not trying to court danger. I’m just trying to enjoy life as anyone would, as any American would. And sadly, that’s not always possible for people of color.

A: How have people responded to the signs?

SE: I’ve been going through a very white part of the country in upstate New York. I can’t make any presumptions. Some of these people, who knows, they may never have spoken to a Black person. I have no idea. I have no idea.

But regardless, they’re being very generous. I’ve felt very supported. I’ve gotten lots of honks and fists in the air and approvals of that kind, which is really heartening. They’ll offer me places to stay. They’ll offer me meals. They just want to connect, and I can only imagine that their intentions are good.

A: You first used Twitter to participate in Black Birders Week earlier this month. What was that like?

SE: I never dreamed I would open a Twitter account. I was one of those Luddites. But I could not sit back and watch this event go by.

It’s actually been very eye-opening, all the people of color studying birds and enjoying birds. I would not have known about a lot of those folks if it weren’t for the Black Birders Week event.

A: What advice do you have for young scientists and naturalists from underrepresented minorities?

SE: A bicycle trip is in some ways a good metaphor for a journey in science. You will run into hills and roadblocks and flat tires. Just don’t let it stop you. We need more diversity in science and we need more success stories. It’s a matter of hard work and creating your community. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not supposed to be doing this.

Let’s just hope our university administrators and faculty hiring committees see it the same way. I sometimes wonder. It’s really important to foster that diversity.

A: How is birding while biking?

I do a lot of birding by ear as I’m riding, and it’s just amazing. You get this sort of aural snapshot of the birds around you. I enjoy becoming part of the soundscape.

That’s the way I’m doing most of my birding. In the morning, there’s usually not a lot of time to go on an actual bird walk. If I were a faster biker, maybe. And in the evening, gosh, I’m just too tired to actively birdwatch.

There have been lots and lots of Red-eyed Vireos, catbirds, and robins of course. I am excited to see my first western bird. That’s when I will realize I’m actually moving. Maybe it will be a Dickcissel, or a Yellow-headed Blackbird, or who knows what.

A: Where does the trip end?

I’d love to end up in Oregon, or whatever is the closest point on the Pacific. If I don’t make it that’s okay. It’s the journey that counts. I know that’s a cliché, but it’s been great so far.