A review by Julia Zarankin
Why Do Bluebirds Hate Me? More Answers to Common and Not-So-Common Questions about Birds and Birding, by Mike O’Connor
Beacon Press, 2013
185 pages, $12.95—softcover
Have you ever wondered where cardinals got their name? Or whether woodpeckers take baths? Or how ducks can withstand extreme cold? Or why Tufted Titmice consume such vast quantities of peanuts? The answers to these, and to many more, questions lie within Mike O’Connor’s whimsical and insightful new opus, Why Do Bluebirds Hate Me?
In the book’s introduction, Mike O’Connor asks himself the same questions readers of his first book, Why Don’t Woodpeckers Get Headaches, might have been posing: “Does the world really need a sequel?” I’ll admit to wondering the same thing as I dived in. Sequels are a notoriously difficult genre, especially when they follow the exact same format as the first, highly successful and popular book. In this case, the format is a Q&A, and what could have been a repetitive and boring read in less able hands works brilliantly in O’Connor’s, in large part thanks to his wit, compassion, and extraordinary expertise in all matters avian, no matter how odd the question.
The material in O’Connor’s books comes from real-life encounters over his thirty years as the owner of the Bird Watcher’s General Store on Cape Cod and as the author of a weekly column in his local newspaper. Each of the book’s nine chapters comprises between five and ten short, two-page essays, each preceded by a question on matters ranging from the common to the frankly esoteric.
Bluebirds takes a more comprehensive view than O’Connor’s first book, broadening the conversation while maintaining its predecessor’s tone and form. The new book moves beyond backyard birding in Massachusetts to provide chapters about conservation issues—including the dangers of pesticides, the benefits of shade-grown coffee, and devastating loss of certain bird habitat—and about inspiring young people’s interest in birds and nature.
There is a deceptive simplicity to O’Connor’s tone. His cheeky humor often masks the fact that the book is a treasure-trove of information.
This is a book that can be read from cover to cover, but it’s also one that readers will come back to. There may well be that moment in your birding life when someone will ask what cardinals have in common with Catholic clergy, and you’ll be happy that a quick check with O’Connor will provide you with all the information you need to sound like an erudite birder with more than a passing interest in church history.
In O’Connor’s hands, even an outwardly simple question such as “Why aren’t chickens featured in bird guides?” is transformed into an illuminating historical précis of the domestication of the Red Junglefowl, Gallus gallus—or, in more pedestrian terms, how wild chickens, which live in the forests of southern Asia, ended up on our dinner tables.
Particularly impressive is O’Connor’s ability to render his technical descriptions accessible to beginners while still maintaining enough erudition to please experts. Describing the Wood Thrush, O’Connor dissects its song:
Like most birds, thrushes have a syrinx (voice box). The syrinx contains two membranes that vibrate when the birds sing. However, unlike most birds, the Wood Thrush is somehow able to separately control the vibration of each membrane, producing two distinct sounds simultaneously. The bird essentially sings a duet with itself, which explains its colloquial name, ‘the Sonny and Cher Thrush’. Actually, that’s a name I made up, so you probably won’t find it in many bird books…yet.
O’Connor is partly joking when he writes that the questions in the book touch on “edgy stuff.” My one wish is that the book had delved more deeply into that edginess, in conservation and education matters alike, taking stronger advantage of a great opportunity to highlight the measures we can take to help birds around us.
The first half of Bluebirds is geared to the backyard birder, with plenty of tips about cleaning birdhouses, heating birdbaths, choosing birdseed (anything but mixed seed!), and rendering one’s feeder more hummingbird-friendly. Nevertheless, O’Connor’s advice can also benefit the more experienced. For example, an ostensibly bizarre question about Blue Jays with a predilection for eating paint inspires an unexpected revelation: It appears that the birds “ingest the limestone-laced paint because limestone is a good source of calcium.” Likewise, Turkey Vultures tear apart wooden decks because the materials used in their construction give off a smell reminiscent of carrion. Who knew?
In the second half, the book’s scope widens to include essays about birds from beyond the American Northeast: We meet such exotic species as the Kookaburra, the Pyrrhuloxia, the Crested Caracara, and the Nene (the Hawaiian Goose, in AOU parlance). Each of these sections provides a historical introduction to the bird, etymological explanations (or frustrations), and curious behavioral anecdotes.
In addition to transporting the reader to exotic locales, O’Connor considers how more everyday birds fare in urban environments, with a shout-out to the surprisingly rewarding birding opportunities of Central Park, the subject, most recently, of Jeffrey Kimball’s fantastic documentary “The Central Park Effect.” The book also situates birding in popular culture, with a particularly hilarious chapter devoted to the ornithologist James Bond, whose name Ian Fleming borrowed for his spy hero.
O’Connor’s humor gives the book a consistently light touch. I found myself giggling at some of his jokes, including a few stellar bird witticisms to add to one’s repertory. At times, I worried that the joking would become repetitive, but O’Connor has enough of a self-deprecating touch to maintain the reader’s interest throughout. He shares many of his own gaffes with the reader:
Years ago, a group of birders were observing a flock of spoonbills feeding in a quiet pond when a car drove up and some idiot jumped out and yelled, “Look! Flamingos!” What a bonehead that guy was. I felt bad for him. Okay, fine, I was that bonehead. I was much younger and a little excitable in those days, but it could happen to anybody.
Oh yes, and happen it does! Most importantly, O’Connor reminds us that birding inevitably involves making mistakes, and that being able to make light of the situation afterwards is an important part of the process.
The Q&A format of Why Do Bluebirds Hate Me works on many levels: It enables O’Connor to weave quirky stories into his narrative, opens the door for a little sarcasm, and reminds us that birding is (nearly) as much about people as it is about birds. O’Connor’s book also does a tremendous job of reminding us that birding, for beginners and more seasoned birders alike, is about asking questions. The more we know about birds, the more we find out how much more there is to know and how many more questions there are to ask.
Perhaps most importantly, O’Connor manages to highlight the importance of earnest inquiry as an integral part of birding; for him, no question is too basic, and all answers manage to shed fascinating light onto the avian world. I appreciate the spirit of optimism in the book, and O’Connor is clearly passionate, endlessly fascinated by his subject. And that enthusiasm is infections. After all, birding is all about finding meaning in the world around us: “Bird watching—like gold, dog walking and gardening—is something that gets us up in the morning.”
There are those who consider birding a rarefied universe, but O’Connor stresses the point that there is no need for technical prowess if we want to watch birds and develop a deep appreciation for them. In fact, some people are birdwatchers without even knowing it: They simply take the time to marvel at the world in their backyard. The value of observing the birds in our midst with wonder, and of taking the time to ponder their behavior, cannot be overstated. In the end, to O’Connor, birding is about walking and exploring the world around us, and he leaves us with the imperative to simply get outside: “Keeping a simple list of new birds may be the motivation we need to go outside and do more birding.… There’s nothing like a day of sunshine [and] fresh air.”
– Julia Zarankin is on her way to becoming a birder. In her other life, she is a writer, editor, writing coach, and lecturer to later-life learners in Toronto. In her former life, she worked as a professor of Russian literature and culture at the University of Missouri. She is a regular contributor to Ontario Nature, and blogs about her misadventures in bird identification and offers trenchant analysis of avian coiffures at Birds and Words.
Zarankin, J. 2014. Do Bluebirds Hate You? [a review of Why Do Bluebirds Hate Me, by Mike O'Connor]. Birding 46(1): 65.