News & Politics

When Fish Growl

The Ways Animals Communicate--Plus New Books and Tantalizing Celebrity Biographies

"NO MATTER WHAT SPECIES," TIM FRIEND SAYS, "we're all concerned with the same topics of conversation–sex, real estate, who's boss, and what's for dinner."

These and other topics are the subject of Friend's first book, Animal Talk: Breaking the Codes of Animal Language, out this month.

Here's a conversation with Friend–a science writer for USA Today and resident of Alexandria.

What's the most surprising thing you discovered?

That all species communicate with a universal language shaped by millions of years of evolution. Whenever an animal is angry or feeling aggressive, it expresses its mood with a low-frequency, staccatolike sound–no matter what species. My editor might say, "If you ever spend this much money on assignment again, you'll be writing obituaries." We talk to our kids this way when we're mad at them. When birds are angry at a squirrel, they start chuttering in a low-frequency sound. Even fish growl when they're angry.

When two friends greet someone they like or they see a baby, the voice rises in frequency and becomes more lilting: "Oh, how are you doing?" or "What a pretty baby!" Geese make gentle eh-eh sounds with each other. Cats purr, and dogs get a high-pitched whimper. Even female bats make more lilting sounds with their young.

Are humans better at communicating than other species are?

We have more technology, but humans engage in so much deception that it's often hard to know where you stand. Animals don't tolerate deception.

If we paid more attention to body language and tone of voice, we could dramatically improve our ability to understand what's being said. I would say your dog knows more about what's going on between two people in your household than the people because the dog is focused on visual and vocal cues, not words.

What animals are the most creative in expressing sexual attraction?

I have two favorites. The first is dolphins, which have sonar, the ability to generate high-frequency sound waves to detect objects. When a dolphin wants to turn on a partner, it activates its sonar and aims it at the genital region of the other dolphin. You could say that dolphins invented the vibrator.

The male balloon fly offers an empty ball of silk to a female as a symbolic inducement to mate. It's theorized that this practice started off with the fly offering a ball of silk that contained a fresh prey item–kind of like a box of chocolates. Over time these male flies realized they could take a few bites out of the prey before wrapping it up, and the females would still accept it. Later they must have realized they could wrap up some dried leftovers, and the females would take it. Eventually they said, "The heck with it–these female flies will mate even if the box is empty."

There's not much in your book about domestic animals.

Since I was covering so much territory, I thought I'd be woefully inadequate in trying to address domestic animals. Everything that's discussed in Animal Talk can be applied to pets. The take-home message is to trust your instinct about what your pet's saying.

My mom and dad get into this little argument over my mom's Chihuahua, Taco, which has individual barks to be let out or when it wants something to eat, and it will tell on my dad when he doesn't hang up his jacket. My mom always says, "Oh, so he didn't hang it up again!" My dad says, "Don't be ridiculous." He's letting his brain say this can't be happening, but my mom knows exactly what Taco's saying.

What Else Is New

FORMER WASHINGTON POST EDITOR and current New Yorker editor Jeffrey Frank–whose previous novel was the satire The Columnist–delivers another biting look at Washington in Bad Publicity. The players are from the worlds of law firms, think tanks, and public relations.

Novelist and critic Thomas Mallon recently moved here from Connecticut to join the National Council on the Arts. The author of Henry and Clara and Dewey Defeats Truman has a new book, Bandbox. The comic novel takes place in the 1920s at a fictional Manhattan magazine.

Annapolis writer Barbara Klein Moss's first short-story collection is called Little Edens. "Rug Weaver"–included in The Best American Short Stories 2001–is about an imprisoned Iranian rug merchant who weaves an imaginary rug in his head.

Lost in Space: The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a New Space Age by Greg Klerkx looks at how NASA has strayed and what can be done to restore its image.

Martin Goldsmith, former host of National Public Radio's Performance Today, goes pop in The Beatles Come to America, a look at the Fab Four's stateside debut 40 years ago.

In Cork Boat, onetime White House speechwriter John Pollack tells of building a boat from wine-bottle corks and sailing it down Portugal's Douro River.

DC writer Jeffrey Paine, former editor of the Wilson Quarterly, has written Re-enchantment: Tibetan Buddhism Comes to the West, about the people who helped change the Eastern faith from obscurity to chic.

In The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age, George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen continues the cautionary tale he began in his last book about privacy, The Unwanted Gaze.

Biographer and poet Daniel Mark Epstein–a Washington native living in Baltimore–interweaves the stories of mutual admirers Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman in Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington.

One January book won't be cheered at the White House. American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush is by former Republican strategist Kevin Phillips.

On the Horizon

COME FEBRUARY, THE WHITE HOUSE still won't be cheering: Bush detractors can look for The Book on Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads America by Eric Alterman, columnist for the Nation, and New York politico Mark Green.

Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten joins his sometime writing partner, Gina Barreca, for I'm With Stupid: One Man. One Woman. 10,000 Years of Misunderstanding Between the Sexes Cleared Right Up.

Former White House aide Michael K. Deaver sets the record, as he sees it, straight in Nancy: A Portrait of My Years With Nancy Reagan.

Takoma Park science writer Robin Marantz Henig retraces the early days of in-vitro fertilization in Pandora's Baby: How the First Test Tube Babies Sparked the Reproductive Revolution.

Two local nonprofit leaders fighting hunger and homelessness have books coming out:

The Light of Conscience: How a Simple Act Can Change Your Life by Bill Shore of Share Our Strength describes "moral entrepreneurs" and others whose ethics guide their work. Begging for Change: The Dollars and Sense of Making Nonprofits Responsive, Efficient, and Rewarding for All by Robert Egger of DC Central Kitchen is a guide to help donors, volunteers, and nonprofit managers make their efforts more effective.

The First 48 is a Washington-set thriller by Tim Green about a reporter who discovers that a US senator was responsible for ruining her father's career.

Retired diplomat Robert Earle has written his first novel, The Way Home, a multigenerational family drama. The Arlington resident won writing awards from Princeton and Johns Hopkins before putting fiction aside for a 20-year Foreign Service career.

Hooray for Hollywood

IT 'S OSCAR SEASON, SO WE ASKED WIL Haygood, a Washington Post writer and author of the well-received In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr., to recommend some books about celebrity and celebrities:

City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s by Otto Friedrich: "A mesmerizing book about corrupt, magical, hedonistic, fun, inventive, blistering Hollywood, when it really was Hollywood."

Dino: Living High in the Dirty Businessof Dreams by Nick Tosches: "You won't think of lumbering Dean Martin the same way after reading this acid-tongued account of his life and the shadows that haunted him."

Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity by Neal Gabler: "It's all about how the celebrity madness that grips us day to day started, with newspaperman Winchell surfing on a wave of self-destruction."

The Hornes: An American Family by Gail Lumet Buckley: "This is Buckley's family memoir, but it's centered around her incandescent mother, Lena Horne, a black actress who demanded respect from a color-conscious Hollywood."

Tim Friend gets to know Kivi, a chimpanzee. "Animals don't tolerate deception," he says.

Senior Managing Editor

Bill O’Sullivan is senior managing editor; from 1999 to 2007, he was a features editor. In another lifetime, he was assistant managing editor. Somewhere in the middle, he was managing editor of Common Boundary magazine and senior editor at the Center for Public Integrity. His personal essays have been cited three times among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays. He teaches at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.