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Rebuilding a Life: 'Who She Was'

Writer Samuel G. Freedman's new book is Who She Was: My Search for My Mother's Life. Freedman's mother died many years ago, when he was just 18, and as he approached his mother's age when she died, he decided to find out all about her life. The result is a narrative fueled by facts.

21:42

Other segments from the episode on March 29, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 29, 2005: Interview with Samuel Freedman; Interview with Donald Kroodsma and Don Stap.

Transcript

DATE March 29, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Samuel G. Freedman discusses his new book, "Who She
Was: My Search for My Mother's Life"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Many of us have wondered what our parents were like before we were born. Sam
Freedman had a particular reason he wanted to learn more about his mother's
life. She died relatively young, at the age of 50, of breast cancer when
Freedman was in college. Just as he had moved away from home, his mother's
sickness pulled him back in and he resisted. He's felt guilty ever since.
When he reached the age that she was when she got sick, he recognized his need
to learn more about who she was. Freedman is a journalist and professor of
journalism at Columbia University. He used his journalistic skills to uncover
his mother's story. He's written several books, including "Jew vs. Jew: The
Struggle for American Jewry," which won the National Jewish Book Award for
non-fiction in 2001.

Let's start with a reading from his new book, "Who She Was: My Search for My
Mother's Life."

Professor SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN (Columbia University; Author, "Who She Was"):
(Reading) I came home for the summer, and in some ways the summer of 1974
never has ended for me. It seared into my brain the sight of a broken woman,
depleted, defeated, desiccated, to whom, as a loyal son, I was shackled. It
seared into my brain every guilty effort I'd made at escape, especially that
day on the Wisconsin campus when I pretended not to know her.

In the years since, friends have told me that I judge myself too harshly.
They've told me any mother would have understood a teen-aged son's display of
emancipation. As a parent myself, I could accept these explanations at a
cerebral level. In my soul, though, I still carried the stain. All those
friends who've offered me reassurance--no, expiation--have grown into
adulthood with mothers still alive and available for reconciliation. I stood
frozen in a posture of rejection, frozen by my mother's early death, the
eternal punctuation.

As I beheld her grave in December of 2000, I wanted so fiercely to know who
else she had been. I wanted to know about the family and the home and the
neighborhood and the world in which she had grown. What did it mean to have
come of age during the Depression, World War II, the Holocaust? I no longer
could settle for the routine answers. We were poor, but everybody was poor.
Bubby(ph) lost her whole family in the war. What did those giant forces,
forces that shook a planet, mean to my own mother? How did they shape her or
misshape her?

I harbored no desire for cheap sentimentality or easy solace, but neither did
I seek a bill of indictment, a lurid litany of dysfunction. The questions
that seized me were of a more quotidian sort. Who was my mother before she
became my mother? Whom did she love? Who broke her heart? What lifted her
dreams? What crushed her spirit? What did she want to be, and did she ever
get to be it in her brief time on earth?

GROSS: That's Sam Freedman, reading from his new book "Who She Was: My
Search for My Mother's Life."

Your mother died when you were in college, and one of the reasons why it was
so important to you to write about her is that you felt you pushed her out of
your life when she was dying. She died at a time when you were establishing
your independence, as young people do when they go to out-of-town college.
And some people are even--you know, some young people are almost embarrassed
to be seen with their parents 'cause they see themselves as being so
different. And you write about an experience where your mother came to visit
you in college during your freshman year, and what happened?

Prof. FREEDMAN: She came out to visit, and I had resisted the idea that she
would visit. In fact, my father played the interceding role that he often did
in really bringing home to me that this might be the only time she'd get to
visit me at college before she would die. And so I consented, but I tried to
set up all these ground rules, one of which was she had wanted to come to my
favorite comp-lit class. I had this extraordinary professor whom I told her
about in my letters home. So, `OK,' I said, `you can come to the class, but
you have to sit a few rows away from me in the lecture hall so no one will
know you're my mother and I'm the kind of dependent boy who needs his mommy
visiting him at college. And when class is over, we're gonna walk out as if
we don't know each other, and then a block or two up the street, after the
rest of the students are scattered, then we can acknowledge one another.'

And that experience just has haunted me all these years. And again, at one
level, I can see that it's all very explicable and normal. And in another way
it just was like this unresolved sin over the years and something that I
needed to redress, partly by writing this book and by doing all the research
into her life that went into it.

GROSS: Part of the story you tell about your mother is who she was as a
sexual person. And, you know, a lot of children just can't imagine their
parents as sexual creatures. And you not only had to imagine it; you had to
report on it as part of your story and to talk to people who would be reliable
witnesses about it, including old boyfriends. Can you talk a little bit about
approaching that as an interview subject?

Prof. FREEDMAN: Sure. I actually thought that, looking at her experience as
a woman, her desires, to some extent her experiences as a sexual person was
part of really knowing who she was because, again, even as a kid, looking at
her, my mother was clear that she was proud of her appearance, she was vain
about it, she wanted to be alluring. And that was a very life-affirming thing
for her, almost in a tragic sense, because at a point very early in her breast
cancer, when it might have been arrested forever if she had had had a
mastectomy, she wouldn't do it because she just could not bear the idea of
losing her breasts. She would say, `I will not be disfigured. I will not be
mutilated.'

So her feeling of herself as an attractive person was key to her, essential to
her. And it was also really part of getting a hold of how she fit in with her
times, 'cause the book is not only about her individually and even about her
family, but about this period from the late '30s to the early '50s, and the
code of sexual conduct was such a huge part of the life her girlfriends and
the boys she dated and the boys she knew lived within. And she was a rebel or
wanted to be a rebel against that. She was straining in her life against the
code that says, `If you go to bed with someone, you've gone from being a good
girl to being a bad girl, and then no one will marry you.' It changes your
status irrevocably.

And this was a zone of behavior that I think not only frustrated her
tremendously but confounded a lot of the boys she knew as well. A couple of
them, as I would, you know, talk about their dates, would talk about times
when they'd come back from a date and maybe my mother in one case had had a
little too much to drink, and so her guard was really down, and would be
pulling her boyfriend down onto the couch of her parents' darkened apartment,
hoping that he would go all the way with her. And the boy would find it
impossible to do it, partly from the sense that you're taking advantage of
someone who's a little bit high, but more importantly because boys were told,
`If she gives in to you, then you can't marry her, then she's no good
anymore.' And that whole part of her life and of the life of her
contemporaries was, you know, integral to the book and absolutely integral to
her character.

And I think, you know, I'm 50 years old; I'm grown up enough to look at what
her life has been in all of its ramifications, and I think again it's part of
looking at the vigor she brought to the brief life she had to know that she
felt desire.

GROSS: You learned that there was a man she fell in love with as a young
woman who she wanted to marry but didn't. This man wasn't Jewish; his name
was Charlie Greco(ph). And her mother, your grandmother, was so upset at the
thought of her daughter marrying someone who wasn't Jewish that she threatened
to throw herself off the roof. And your mother very resentfully decided to
stop seeing this man because her mother had threatened suicide. First of all,
how did you discover this? I don't think you knew about this relationship
until you started researching the book.

Prof. FREEDMAN: Well, I had heard little stray mentions growing up to a few
parts of my mother's life. These were never elaborated on. And one of the
things I had heard is that my mother had had a non-Jewish boyfriend and that
my grandmother had threatened to jump off the roof to object to it. But
hearing that, it was hard to know, was this just sort of a family fable, an
exaggeration? What was really behind it? And I never knew the entirety of
what was behind it until doing all the work on the book.

And then it became an incredibly dense and textured story in which, in some
ways, I discovered just how incredibly small-minded my grandmother could be,
you know, putting her own life on the line to deprive my mother of someone she
loved deeply and someone who loved her and someone who, although he was
Italian Catholic, was absolutely fascinated with and infatuated with all
things Jewish.

But it also revealed to me a whole other side of the story, which was that
what my grandmother in a very wrongheaded way was acting out was also this
very real grief over the death of almost all of her family members in the
Holocaust, and she could only interpret that as being not `The Nazis killed my
family,' not `The Germans killed my family,' but `The gentiles killed my
family.' And she even used the derogatory Yiddish term `goys.' `The goys
killed my family.'

And at the same time, I felt empathy for my grandmother that I had never felt
before, because now I also knew how for a period of years she had been
scraping together what little money the family had during the Depression to
try to send to her relatives, sending them clothing that they could use, that
they could try to sell or barter, doing anything to get them out. And in
fact, the only relatives who got out of Poland, who ended up in South America,
got out through her efforts. And yet she felt herself complicit and
responsible for their extermination. But I suppose finding that feeling
unbearable, she had to put it on someone else, and she put it on my mother and
my mother's boyfriend Charlie.

GROSS: My guest is Sam Freedman. His new book is called "Who She Was: My
Search for My Mother's Life." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Sam Freedman. His new book, "Who She Was," is the story
of his mother's life before he was born. When he left off, Freedman was
explaining that when his mother was young, she was in love with a man who
wasn't Jewish, but she broke things off when her mother threatened to throw
herself off the roof if they got married.

One of the people you interviewed for the book was the woman who this man
married after your mother broke off the relationship. And he's long dead, but
you interviewed his widow. And I've thought a lot about what it must have
been like to talk with her about the woman her husband was in love with
shortly before he met the woman who you were interviewing.

Prof. FREEDMAN: It went into some really tender, difficult territory, and I
was always incredibly grateful that Charlie's widow would even see me and not
only see me but she helped me locate Charlie's one living sibling, a sister,
and a bunch of his closest friends growing up. And they were actually the
ones who remembered my mother and Charlie together; they were the ones who
went on dates with them and remember when my mother was over at Charlie's
family's house for Christmas Eve.

Charlie's widow--I was talking with her mostly about Charlie himself, because
she came into Charlie's life after the relationship with my mother had broken
up. And you know, when she first met Charlie, he was still really, you know,
kind of distraught over the breakup with my mother and, in fact, initially had
said to Selma(ph), the woman he would ultimately marry, that he was still with
my mother, which was not true, and then he, you know, soon after that
acknowledged they had already broken up. So my mother's relationship with
Charlie was certainly something hovering over, you know, Charlie's marriage.

But I suppose one of the reasons that she did speak to me is that, in the end,
Charlie did marry her and Charlie did have a family with her. There's even a
point late in the book, after my mother's disastrous first marriage has been
annulled and before she's decided to marry my father, when she even calls up
Charlie, who by this time has a family, and says, you know, `Now I'm ready to
marry you.' And Charlie says to her, you know, `I'm married. I have
children. And I'm not going to leave my family.' And so I supposed that
made--knowing that probably makes it a little bit more possible for Charlie's
then wife, now widow, to revisit some of this territory.

GROSS: Did he tell her about that experience?

Prof. FREEDMAN: He did. He--what happened was she had arranged to call him
at a telephone booth outside a convenience store near his house, and Selma
happened to be driving by in her car when she saw Charlie on the phone. And
then when he got home a little bit later, she said, `Why are you making a
phone call, you know, a couple of blocks from home?' And he said, `Well, that
was Eleanor,' and he explained the substance of the conversation.

And when Selma told me this story, I thought it's amazing, but I've--and it
sounds true, so the next time I went to see my aunt, my mother's sister, I
said to her, `You know, I heard this story from Charlie's widow about Mom
calling up Charlie after she got the annulment and asking if he would leave
his family so they could marry.' And my aunt said, `Yes, I remember that.'

GROSS: You are a professor of journalism at the Columbia School of
Journalism. You teach a class on book writing, on non-fiction book writing.
And several of your students have gone on to write books, and several of those
books have been memoirs. Now I'd like to hear what you think makes a life
worth writing about. You've written several non-fiction books, and they've
all been about other people: a teacher, a preacher, three families. So let's
face it, like, your mother, who this book is about, she's not a person we
would read about because she's famous, because she wasn't famous. We wouldn't
read about her because of her extraordinary accomplishments, because she
didn't have extraordinary accomplishments. So what makes a person worth
reading about?

Prof. FREEDMAN: You know, the thing that links this book to almost everything
else I've written is this idea that I hold really ferociously, that,
quote-unquote, "ordinary" lives can actually be quite extraordinary, not
because they leave behind these incredible accomplishments, but because any
life really explored by a writer is filled with all the passionate elements of
human nature, with love, with disappointment, with longing, with anger. Those
are like the, you know, on the periodic chart of the elements, these are like
the basic elements of human existence, and they can be in any life, and I
suppose also because I felt almost generationally I was speaking to other
people who were hitting middle age as I was, and maybe their parents were
alive but their parents were probably in their 70s or 80s. And these people,
like me, were maybe realizing for the first time, `I don't even really know
who my parents are, other than the fact that they're my parents.' But you
know what? They must have had times when they were in love in people who
didn't love them back or vice versa. They must have times when they were
scrambling to help their family get by in the Depression. So maybe it spoke
to a generational part.

GROSS: I think one reason why so many people are interested in learning more
about the lives of their of their parents is, you know, we're all mysteries
unto ourselves in some way, like we don't really understand why we're made the
way we are or why our emotional systems work the way they do. And I think we
feel like, well, if we understood more about our parents, we'd maybe
understand more about ourselves. Do you feel like you had any major
revelations about how you're made, what your emotional makeup is like, by
getting a sense of your mother and your grandmother's history?

Prof. FREEDMAN: Absolutely. It also, of course, complicates what you know
about with your parents. You know, in writing about my mother's dating life
and love life, I've seen really clearly the type of man she liked. It's a
through-line that runs through all of her serious relationships, including her
marriage to my father, with the exception of the marriage that got annulled.
And I see that I'm not that type, that I was more like the sort of nerdy kids
who were her friends in high school, the boys she was friendly with, but not
the kind like my father to whom she responded.

But all of it, I felt like it's worth knowing. And just one last point on
that is in a more communal way, having grown up and heard these vague
references to the relatives who got killed in the Holocaust, I went to great
efforts to find out that story, which went to Poland and to Uruguay and
involved my grandmother's life in New York, and finally put together this
really incredibly tragic but very, to me, personal story of what happened to
my own flesh and blood. And that was a really, you know, edifying, important
thing to know because it takes this abstraction of history and makes it feel
very palpable.

GROSS: In the beginning of our interview, we talked about the incident in
which your mother wanted to come and sit in on one of your classes and you
made her act like she didn't know you so that none of the other students would
know that your mom was in class with you. And you felt very guilty about that
over the years and that's, like, part of the reason you wanted to, you know,
write this book and understand who she was. And so did the book help in that?
Do you feel, like, over that incident now?

Prof. FREEDMAN: I do finally feel over that incident. I feel that I made
good some kind of a psychic debt to her with all the effort it took to
reconstruct her life and with all of the emotional connection that I came to
feel to her in doing it. It was a way of apologizing, I guess, apologizing
for that day, apologizing for the long, unconscionable absence from her grave.
I could only pay her back in, I guess, what's the currency of my world or my
way of life, which is research and writing and telling a story.

GROSS: Sam Freedman, thanks so much for talking with us.

Prof. FREEDMAN: Well, thank you, Terry. It was such a pleasure.

GROSS: Sam Freedman's new book is called "Who She Was." He's a professor of
journalism at Columbia University. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of various birds)

GROSS: Coming up, thrushes and thrashers, wrens and owls. We listen to the
singing life of birds with ornithologist Donald Kroodsma and nature journalist
Don Stap.

(Soundbite of various birds)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Donald Kroodsma and Don Stap discuss intepretations
of birdsong
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Why do birds sing, and what are they singing about? My two guests are
absorbed in those questions and get enormous pleasure from listening to birds
sing. We're going to listen with them to some amazing recordings of birdsong.

My guest Donald Kroodsma was recognized by the American Ornithologists'
Union in 2003 as the reigning authority on the biology of bird vocal
behavior. He's written a new book about the art and science of birdsong
called "The Singing Life of Birds." Kroodsma is a visiting fellow at the
Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

My guest Don Stap is a nature journalist. His new book, "Birdsong: A Natural
History," is, in part, about Kroodsma's field work. Stap is a professor of
English at the University of Central Florida.

Don Stap, Donald Kroodsma, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd actually like to start
with birdsong, and what I'd like to do is play the song of the common
yellowthroat. And, Donald Kroodsma, in this recording, we're going to hear it
both ways; we're going to hear it at regular speed, and then we're going to
hear it slowed down to half speed and then to quarter speed. Tell us what to
listen for.

Mr. DONALD KROODSMA (Author, "The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science
of Listening to Birdsong"): Well, this is a beautiful yellow bird with a
black mask--in spite of that--called a common yellowthroat. What you hear is
a song with four phrases. And you might call it `witchity, witchity,
witchity, witchity.' And if we could actually look at the song graphs or
sonograms for this bird, we would see those four phrases, and we'd see the
little bits in each one of those phrases. And especially when we get it
slowed down to one-quarter speed, we'd see and hear each little note that that
yellowthroat is singing.

GROSS: What shall we listen for when it's slowed down? What can we hear that
we couldn't hear at the regular speed?

Mr. KROODSMA: Well, at regular speed you'll hear pretty much a very rapid
song. You'll hear notes slurred up and down the scale. You'll hear the
partedness to it, the `witchity, witchity,' the three syllables in each of
four phrases. But once you slow it down, you hear each one of those notes
rising, and sometimes they'll rise, fall, and rise very rapidly. Things will
still happen very rapidly, but if you could see this sonogram, see it in your
mind's eye, you would see that sweep up and down very easily.

GROSS: Here's the song of the common yellowthroat. And we'll hear it at
regular speed, and then we'll hear it slowed down and then slowed down even
more.

(Soundbite of yellowthroat birdsong)

Mr. KROODSMA: Fantastic.

GROSS: You know, it--do you hear notes when it's slowed down that you didn't
hear before or variations in pitch that you didn't hear before?

Mr. KROODSMA: I do. I hear more detail. I hear it sliding up and down.
And also the song, as it's slowed down to quarter speed, the pitch is
dropped, too, to a better range of my hearing. So lots of little details come
through that my ears are not fast enough to pick up at full speed.

GROSS: Don Stap, what do you hear in that?

Professor DON STAP (University of Central Florida; Author, "Birdsong: A
Natural History): Well, actually what interests me about this is how much
more Kroodsma hears in it than I hear to begin with. I mean, he's trained his
ear to birdsong in a way that not too many people have.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about the chickadee. Donald Kroodsma, would
you describe the chickadee song before we actually hear it?

Mr. KROODSMA: Yes. It's such a nice, simple song. And in the field guides,
you'll see it described as `fee-be-ee,' but I personally prefer `hey,
sweetie.' So throughout mainland North America--most of North America, you
hear two main whistles. The first whistle's higher than the second, and
there's a little break in the second whistle, so you hear two syllables:
`hey, sweetie.' So that's the mainland North America song. But Martha's
Vineyard song, why, you've got something completely different there.

GROSS: Now do you write lyrics to most birdsongs, like the `hey, sweetie'
that you just described?

Mr. KROODSMA: No, I don't write lyrics to most of them, but I needed
something so that I could rephrase that lyric to accommodate all these
variations on the vineyard. So on the vineyard, we have `sweetie, hey,' for
example, or `sweetie, sweetie' or `so sweetie, sweetie' to indicate where
those little pauses are in the main whistles.

Prof. STAP: I'd just like to say one thing about this, which is Don,
referring to it as `hey, sweetie,' for instance, is something that naturalists
have been doing for a long time because it was difficult to figure out how to
remember what the song sounded like. So we can have all these mnemonic
devices to remember birdsongs, which are helpful if you've actually heard the
birdsong. If you haven't heard it, then the mnemonic device is not going to
help you very much at all, I don't think.

But--so we've got all these--you know, the barred owl says--`Who cooks for
you? Who cooks for you all' is the phrase we use. And what, you know,
bioacoustics has done in the last 50 years, with tape recorders and audio
spectrographs, has made it possible to grasp these songs by looking at them on
a graph and not needing to have to remember how they sounded. You know, it's
one of the things that sort of fascinated me--that this is sort of a
relatively new science dealing with something that people have been fascinated
about for, really, thousands of years.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear the black-capped chickadee's `hey, sweetie'
song? And here it is.

(Soundbite of birdsong)

GROSS: For some reason, that birdsong sounds so in sync with the Western
scale. You know, that bird has perfect pitch. It keeps coming back to the
same pitches, and then he changes key (laughs). It just sounds so in sync
with--it sounds like the bird's been taking music lessons. And I'm not
talking about, like, the beauty of the song but just how it kind of fits with
what--fits in with the structure of Western music.

Mr. KROODSMA: Yes, there is one thing you ought to know, and that is the
pitch ratio between the `hey' and the `sweetie' stays constant as he
transposes this song over this range. So it's, really, quite a remarkable
song.

GROSS: Is that atypical in birds?

Mr. KROODSMA: Yes, I would say it is. I don't know, in fact, of any other
examples where a bird does something exactly like this.

GROSS: My guests are ornithologist Donald Kroodsma, author of the new book
"The Singing Life of Birds," and nature journalist Don Stap, author of
"Birdsong: A Natural History." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of animal calls)

GROSS: My guests are ornithologist Donald Kroodsma, author of the new book
"The Singing Life of Birds," and nature journalist Don Stap, author of
"Birdsong: A Natural History."

Are birds born with songs, or are they taught certain songs?

Mr. KROODSMA: If we could have the answer to one question in all of
bioacoustics, all of those of us who study birdsong, I think we would love to
know the answer to that question. Yes, these songbirds, 4,500 of them, learn
to sing just like we learn to speak.

GROSS: In what sense is it similar?

Mr. KROODSMA: It's the learning component. The songbirds, 4,500, they have a
sister group, a very closely related group, and the fly catchers belong to
that group. In that group, the songs are, more or less, encoded right into
the DNA. A young bird does not have to hear anything in order to know how to
sing perfect songs for that species. But for these songbirds--this
yellowthroat, this chickadee that we heard--these are songbirds. They have to
hear from adults, just as we, as people, as children, need to learn our speech
patterns from parents. And young birds babble; young people babble. Birds
have song dialects, and we certainly know that people have these same kinds of
dialects. So striking similarities between how these songbirds acquire their
songs, how we acquire our speech and the parallels between them.

GROSS: Well, on the CD that comes with your book, Donald Kroodsma, that--you
have one track of baby talk. Is that because you wanted to make that
comparison between how certain young birds learn their songs and how babies
learn to talk?

Mr. KROODSMA: Yes. I love that comparison. We can listen to that track of
my daughter when she was about a year and a half old. She's uttering all
these words in a nonsensical sequence, and we can tell where these words
belong. She uses `bowwow' for `dog'; `ditty' for `kitty.' `We-we-we'--and
she hears the little piggy's homeward cry in the story that we've told to her
over and over. And then you look at the song graphs or the sonograms for the
adult wren and compare what the baby wren does, and you see the same kind of
nonsensical sequence. Everything is taken out of context. The youngster is
just babbling away, practicing everything. So my daughter and this young
wren, these young songbirds, are doing exactly the same thing.

GROSS: Well, let's start with your daughter (laughs). Here's your daughter
babbling at a year and a half.

(Soundbite of CD)

Kroodsma's Daughter: Bowbow, bowwow, bowwow. We-we-we. Happy. Mama, wa,
wa, da, da, da, daddy. Daddy. Wa-wa, wa-wa. We, de, de. Ay, de, de.

GROSS: OK. And why don't we now hear the adult wren and then the baby wren.
What should we be listening for, Donald Kroodsma?

Mr. KROODSMA: Oh, with the adult wren, you'll hear four songs, and they are
sharp and crisp. And this adult knows exactly what he's doing. And he'll
sing one of these songs up to 50 times in a row, then he'll go to another wren
and sing that one 50 times in a row. But we're hearing just one examples of
each of these long series. Then you listen to the young bird, and you hear
this amorphous babbling and the little bits that will eventually become the
adult song. They're all taken out of sequence. There's--one is sung before
the other. They're strung together in this long sequence, very unlike the
sharp, crisp singing of the adult.

GROSS: OK, let's start with the adult wren.

(Soundbite of adult wren's birdsong)

GROSS: OK, that was the adult wren. And let's hear the baby wren, who is
just learning how to sing. And this is kind of like a babbling baby. It
doesn't--it's a little, well, nonsensical.

(Soundbite of baby wren's birdsong)

GROSS: So, OK, we just heard the baby bewick wren imitating, not perfectly
yet, what he's heard the adult sings. You actually had a breakthrough in
studying wrens. You learned that they don't necessarily learn to sing from
their fathers. They might learn from their neighbors. Can you talk a little
bit about that breakthrough?

Mr. KROODSMA: Yes. I was a graduate student at the time and looking for a
good research project. And after a lot of reading, I realized that nobody
really knows where a young bird gets its songs. Where, for example, these
bewick wrens that I was studying--`Where does that young male get his song?'
Well, the female doesn't sing. She's the architect of everything the male
sings, but she doesn't actually sing. So the choices for a young male are
either his father or other birds after this young male has left home.

And what I found, after a wee bit of work, banding lots of baby birds, putting
little bands on their legs, following them along as they moved from their
birthplace to where they would settle for the rest of their lives--and this
could be about a mile away or so--I found that these young birds were
certainly capable of learning their fathers' songs. But then they rejected
all of those songs, so that they could sing the songs of the males that were
around them on the territory that they would hold for the rest of their life.
So they had to fit into this new community. Fathers' songs meant nothing in
this new community because, after all, it was a different dialect, and
dialects change over very short distances, up to a mile or so.

GROSS: Don Stap, what surprises you most about how birds learn to sing?

Prof. STAP: Well, all of this surprised me, to begin with. You know, one
thing that Don was not saying there that--'cause he was talking about the--his
work on the bewick's wren--is that when he was doing that, the prevailing
theory was otherwise; was that most birds learn from the father or at least
adults in the area where they were born. And a lot of the work on
song-learning had been done in the laboratory, with birds that were kept in
sound-proof cages and played songs to them over speakers. And by controlling
all kinds of variables, people thought that, for instance, a bird would learn
its song from--beginning with day six to day 50 or so. And that seemed to be
a really solid bit of evidence.

But not many people have done much work in the field like this, which is
more--well, it's not more time-consuming work, but less predictable. I mean,
Don had to--with these bewick's wrens, for instance, he spent three years at a
wildlife refuge in Oregon going out and capturing--What was it?--300 adults
over a period of a couple of years. That's not easy to do, chasing wrens
around and chasing them with Mist Nets and banding them and making notes
on, you know, who lives here, who lives there and then, more difficult yet,
trying to catch the offspring of these wrens a year later and hoping he would
catch enough of them and be able to then relocate them, as they became adults,
and match up numbers. You know, `Who moved over here and is now singing like
his new neighbors as opposed to singing a song of the father he was born to?'

So that's part--you know, that's something that really interested me when I
was working on this book--was the way field work became increasingly, I think,
important and that the combination of field work and laboratory work is what
gives you the most information, I think.

GROSS: Well, let's hear another birdsong, and I thought we could hear the
song of the barred owl. And some of these sounds sound to me almost like
chimps or roosters. They're really interesting. But before we actually hear
a male-female duet of barred owls, let's start with a recording that just kind
of is simple and breaks it down. Don Kroodsma, what are we going to hear?

Mr. KROODSMA: Well, the first recording that we're going to hear, it's very
simple. There's simply two sounds; the first is by the female, and the second
is by the male. And what we've always known is that the female has a
higher-pitched voice. Even though she is much larger than he is--this is just
the reverse of most birds--even though she's much larger than he is, the pitch
of her voice is a little higher. So the first sound that you hear is a
`you-all' by the female. And the second one is the `you-all' by the male. So
listen for the higher pitch in the first one, the lower pitch in the second
one. And then what became part of my story was I discovered that the female
has much more vibrato. It's a `you-aaaalllll,' and it drags on, whereas the
male just stops short, `you-all.' So go ahead.

GROSS: OK, here it is.

(Soundbite of barred owls' birdsongs)

Mr. KROODSMA: Do you hear the striking difference in both the pitch and the
amount of vibrato?

GROSS: Uh-huh. Well, you want to hear a duet now? What should we listen
for?

Mr. KROODSMA: Sure. Let's listen to a duet. So now that we know the key
difference in how to tell male and female, now you can start to tell, well,
who's contributing and actually how to this duet. So you always listen for
this pitch difference, the higher one being the female. But then when the
sounds are so different, you can no longer rely on the pitch, then you rely on
that vibrato to tell which is the male and which is the female.

GROSS: OK, let's hear it.

(Soundbite of barred owls' birdsongs)

GROSS: That is so wonderful (laughs).

Mr. KROODSMA: Wow.

GROSS: That's really great.

Mr. KROODSMA: If you come across birds like this in the dark, it sends
shivers up and down your spine. It is sca--it sounds like two huge cats
caterwauling. And my favorite part is the last part of that recording because
it is there that the male--it's like he's opened up his mouth, and it's giving
this really hooting `ha-ha-ha' sound, but you hear her accompanying in the
background with that wonderful vibrato, that `you-aaaalllll,' as he's cackling
in the foreground. I love that sound.

Prof. STAP: They make a bunch of other really strange sounds, too.
We've--I've told Don this recently a number of times. We have a pair of
barred owls on our property right now. I mean, one of the great joys has been
these two owls that have been there for the last year, and they hang around
the house. They sit on our deck, and they kind of keep an eye on the bird
feeder. They sit on the birdbath some day--and they've been making a lot of
noise the last few weeks; it's spring down here. And they make the strangest
sounds, besides that sort of basic call we just heard.

And, you know, again, some of this stuff is--I've taken it real personal. I
mean, when Don said, `Oh, the female has that vibrato at the end,' I thought,
`Now I can tell which is which.'

GROSS: My guests are nature journalist Don Stap, author of "Birdsong: A
Natural History," and ornithologist Donald Kroodsma, author of the new book
"The Singing Life of Birds." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of birdsong)

GROSS: My guests are ornithologist Donald Kroodsma, author of the new book
"The Singing Life of Birds," and nature journalist Don Stap, author of
"Birdsong: A Natural History."

Donald Kroodsma, I've been choosing all the tracks from the CD that comes with
your book, and there's, you know, like, about 90 tracks on it. I want to ask
you to choose a personal favorite or one that's particularly popular with
people. Would you do that?

Mr. KROODSMA: Oh, my favorites, I think--I always gravitate towards the
thrushes: the wood thrush, the hermit thrush. They are routinely considered
among the most beautiful songs in North America. And I think there's one
figure in the book where I tend to go when I have nothing else to do--and
sometimes that happens--I just want to look at this figure and connect with it
again. It's the song of the wood thrush, and let's first listen to a normal
wood thrush singing at normal speed. And what I'd like to have you hear are
these song, little `bup-bup-bup' notes at the beginning of the song and then a
loud, bold, whistled prelude and then the ending, what I would call a
flourish. And that flourish happens so rapidly that we can't appreciate
what's going on. So let's listen first to the overall details of, oh, roughly
10 songs.

GROSS: OK.

(Soundbite of wood thrush birdsongs)

GROSS: So those were some of the details of some of the songs of the wood
thrush. What should we hear now?

Mr. KROODSMA: OK. So we heard that loud prelude and then the middle of the
song and then the ending flourish. I want to zoom in on that flourish on the
end because, to our ears, things happen so quickly there that it sounds like
just a blur. But what happens when you pull this song apart and slow it down
to 1/10th its normal speed, it is just exquisite because this wood thrush,
like so many songbirds, uses two voice boxes simultaneously. So he's singing
a duet with himself. And so you can look at the sonogram--and I--these are a
figure in the book--you can see the contribution from his left voice, and you
see the contribution from his right voice box. And in some songs, the left
and right are tightly coordinated, beautiful sign waves moving in harmony
across the page. But in others, the two voice boxes are quite independent,
and--but whether they're tightly coordinated or independent, the effect is
just really striking.

So in this next recording, what I've done is to present only the left voice
box first--be just a few seconds long, five seconds maybe--then five seconds
of the right voice box. And then you hear the left and the right together in
harmony. So go ahead and play that.

GROSS: OK.

(Soundbite of birdsong)

Mr. KROODSMA: So that was one of those flourishes, if we could pause there
just a minute. So the left and the right voice boxes in that first flourish
are doing something quite different.

In this next one, the left voice box and the right voice are doing pretty much
the same thing. They're beautiful sign waves in the figure, but they're
non-overlapping in pitch. So the first voice box is low-pitched; the second
one is higher-pitched. And you play the two together, and you just feel this
wonderful harmony.

(Soundbite of birdsong)

Mr. KROODSMA: That's stunning.

GROSS: And is there a third part now?

Mr. KROODSMA: We should listen to just one more. I'd love to listen to all
six of them on this page, but let's listen to one more because I love this
one. It reminds me of my piano lessons that I failed as a youngster.

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. KROODSMA: Because the two voices--you can just see it. One voice goes
`one, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.' And
on every `one,' the left voice box gives a good solid `one.' So it's--you
feel the emphasis. So every four sweeps of the right voice box, the left
voice box is making only one sweep. So listen to the slow sweeps of the left
voice box first, then the rapid ones, four times as rapid, in the right and
then the beautiful coordination, the `one, two, three, four. One, two, three,
four.'

(Soundbite of birdsong)

GROSS: That was really wonderful. That's the song of the wood thrush. And,
well, I thank you both so much for talking with us. Thank you.

Prof. STAP: Thank you.

Mr. KROODSMA: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Ornithologist Donald Kroodsma is the author of "The Singing Life of
Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong," which comes with the
birdsongs CD. Journalist Don Stap is the author of "Birdsong: A Natural
History."

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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