In Print

Wisecracks and wise advice for birdwatchers

By Dan Cabot - May 17, 2007

"Why Don't Woodpeckers Get Headaches? And Other Bird Questions You Know You Want to Ask," by Mike O'Connor. Beacon Press (2007). 212 pages. Softcover, $9.95.

Mike O'Connor owns the Bird Watchers General Store on Cape Cod and writes a weekly newspaper column called "Ask the Bird Folks." "Woodpeckers" is a collection of answers to questions sent in by readers, organized into sections such as attracting and feeding wild birds, useful guides and equipment, identification, and so forth.

Mr. O'Connor is an expert birder, but perhaps because he is in the business of selling bird food and equipment to ordinary folks, he lacks pretension. You'll find no Latin names here. He is down-to-earth and tries (most of the time successfully) to be funny.

All kinds of birders will find a wealth of information - some useful, some useless, some surprising, but all of it entertaining. Mr. O'Connor writes toward the end of the book, "Birding can be done at any level you choose. Nobody likes to ride with a bad driver, eat food prepared by a bad cook, or listen to a bad singer, but it doesn't matter with birding. Even if you stink at it, nobody minds. Most people I see every day actually know very little about birds, but they know they enjoy seeing them, and for most of us that's plenty."

Mr. O'Connor's style is flippant. The collected newspaper columns were meant to be entertaining, something like an advice-to-the-lovelorn column written by a grumpy male. For example, when Pete from Silver Springs, Md., asks about the birdseed he's been buying in his hardware store, Mr. O'Connor jabs, "Hardware store, Pete? You buy your bird food at a hardware store? Where do you buy your own food, Jiffy Lube?" When Carl from Ashland asks for advice about where to hang the feeder he received as a gift, the reply begins: "Well, Carl, my favorite place to put a feeder is outside." However, Mr. O'Connor does answer all questions eventually, and along with the comedy, Pete gets some useful information about bird diets, and Carl, about the risks birds face.

As the title suggests, the book also answers some arcane questions about bird anatomy and activities. Most of them are found in a chapter facetiously headed "Information Nobody Should Be Without." Woodpeckers, in case you are wondering, have a much larger brain case and a kind of shock-absorber structure at the base of the bill. What's the fastest bird speed? (200 miles an hour, but only in a dive.) How do birds sleep? (Lots of ways, some perhaps even on the wing.) Should you throw rice at weddings? (Sure.) Why does water roll off a duck's back? (Feather structure.) And so on.

Mr. O'Connor's jabs and humorous digressions are entertaining in small doses, and one can imagine that even expert birders look forward from one week to the next to see what the jokes will be. But reading straight through the book, we found that the wisecracking style gets tedious. We recommend reading the questions in short batches, maybe only one or two at a time. "Woodpeckers" might be best placed where it can be used to pass an idle moment or two - by the kitchen window that overlooks the backyard feeder perhaps, or in the bathroom with the old Reader's Digests.

MV Times contributing editor Dan Cabot lives in West Tisbury and owns two bird feeders and several pairs of binoculars.