INTRODUCTION Exactly the Same, Only Different
When I mentioned to a friend that I was putting together another book, he asked what this new book would be about. His response caught me off guard. We have been friends for a long time. He knows me pretty well and is aware that I don’t know much else once the topic gets beyond birds. Still, I understand why he was asking. After all, I had already written one bird Q&A book. Does the world really need a sequel?
My response to that is, yes, of course it does. (How else do you think I was going to answer that?) I don’t know when the first cookbook came out, but cookbooks didn’t end with that original book. They still keep coming. There will always be newer and yummier recipes to write about. This same principle applies to bird Q&A books. I’ve been operating a birding store for over thirty years, and hardly a day goes by when I don’t hear a question I’ve never heard before. Some questions are trivial, some are intriguing, and a few truly scare me.
One of the main reasons for this sequel is that sometimes people want to ask a question but it takes them a while to work up the nerve. It’s like when we go to the local auditorium to hear someone speak about some topic (birds, flowers, pet hypnotism) that we thought we were interested in at the time. Sometimes the talks are enlightening, and sometimes they make us wish we had stayed home and done the laundry.
But whether the talks are good or bad, they all end the same way: the speaker’s last four words are always, “Anyone have a question?” For the next eight seconds the room is filled with deadly silence. Half the people in the audience want to ask a question but are too self-conscious to be the first to raise a hand; the other half of the audience are praying that no one raises a hand so they can get the heck out of there, or at least be first to the refreshment table.
This book was written for the first half of the audience. It is for the people who were too shy to raise a hand and thus their question didn’t make it into my previous book, Why Don’t Woodpeckers Get Headaches? And Other Bird Questions You Know You Want to Ask.
I realize this book should have come out sooner, but I’ve been busy hanging out at the refreshment table with the other half of the audience. They’re my kind of people.
Writing a Q&A bird column for Cape Cod’s weekly newspapers is not as easy as it sounds. There are always issues to deal with. For example, some folks insist I get right to the point and give them a straight answer. Others don’t like seeing their name in print. First of all, I never give a straight answer, so making such stipulations is a waste of time. Second, relax. I use only first names. No matter how lame the question is, no one is going to know you asked it. I’m sure there is more than one Mary or Rick in, say, Tallahassee. Besides, having your name appear in a bird column is not the worst thing in the world. It’s not like having your name in the police blotter or the obituaries. Asking questions about birds is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not as bad as admitting to being from Tallahassee.
One of my favorite ways to receive a question is what I call the “clandestine approach.” Someone will catch my eye at work and motion for me to come over to a dark corner of the store. They want to talk to me privately. Suddenly, I feel like I’m about to receive national secrets from Deep Throat. But instead of secrets, I’m asked which is the last bird to go to bed at night or why wrens have such weird tails. Edgy stuff. Soon I understand why these people don’t want to be overheard by anyone else.
In this book I’ve tried to answer the questions that didn’t make it in the first time around. I’ve also included questions from the shy, the paranoid, and the clandestine types. I address such burning topics as these: Why do hummingbirds hum? Why do doves’ wings whistle? Do woodpeckers take baths? (Again with the woodpeckers.) I also add a few columns on birds that many folks aren’t familiar with. (Ever see a Hoopoe?) It’s my way of trying to expand the readers’ bird horizons. There’s life beyond backyard chickadees and wren tails, you know.
I’m often asked what is the strangest question I’ve ever gotten, to which I reply, “That question.” (It always leads to puzzled looks.) However, I think the top contender for the strangest question has to be one I found on my answering machine one morning. (I swear this is true.) A lady called wanting to know if thistle (nyjer) seed is safe for humans to eat. It seems this woman had bought a bag of thistle, took it home, and put it in a different container to keep it fresh. The next morning she found her houseguest chowing down a bowl of fresh thistle. We played her call over and over until the tape wore out. (I’m starting to understand why some people have second thoughts about asking me questions.) The person who ate the seed suffered no ill effects, BTW, but reportedly now sleeps by standing on one leg and sings very early in the morning.
One last thing: When my first book was released, some folks complained that the illustrations didn’t match the text. They suggested that when I wrote about a Belted Kingfisher, for example, it would have been helpful if an appropriate illustration had accompanied the text. In this new book I responded to those complaints by ignoring them. There are tons of precisely illustrated books out there. I didn’t want to compete with them. It just wouldn’t be fair to those other books. Besides, illustrations cost money. If the publisher put extra dough into illustrations, there wouldn’t be enough left to pay me. I certainly can’t have that.
Excerpted from Why Do Bluebirds Hate Me? by Mike O'Connor. Copyright © 2013 by Mike O'Connor. Excerpted by permission of Beacon Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.