ORLEANS – There is a specific system for how Mike O’Connor answer questions.
O’Connor, 60, is the owner of the Bird Watcher’s General Store on Route 6A in Orleans and the author of a new book, “Why Do Bluebirds Hate Me?”, a compilation of informative and humorous Cape Codder newspaper columns about birding. The book was published by Beacon Press.
“My son works here and he pointed out that my first answer is never a straight answer,” said O’Connor, standing in the store. “It’s always a smart-ass answer. And then my second answer I am serious and give you far and above the information that you want.”
So if, for instance, you want to know why bluebirds don’t go into your yard – the subject of the title essay in the book, you first have to deal with O’Connor’s first instinct – the smart-ass answer. “It’s hard to know why birds don’t like certain people, but I’m sure they have their reasons. Do you have a feather pillow or wear a down jacket? Those things can work against you….”
O’Connor’s witty take on bird questions is a huge appeal of the book.
But then, just when it appears the answer is going to be all sass and snark, O’Connor goes into a detailed explanation of how “bluebirds don’t hate you, they just may not love where you live,” and he describes the food they are looking for – insects in the summer, berries in the winter – and why you must live in the right location to attract bluebirds.
Each of the 76 questions, organized under nine headings, follows the same format.
“I call it laugh and learn,” said Olivia Miller, who helped edit and organize his column into a book. Actually this is second book of compilations. His first was called, “Why Don’t Woodpeckers Get Headaches?” (Beacon Press, 2007).
Crazy Diversity of Habitat
Mike O’Connor was born and raised in Shrewsbury. He recalls his youthful outdoor experiences as playing sports, and camping with friends in backyards.
As for animals, he had a dog, Sandy.
“One year I went to a private school in Worcester. My mother used to take me to a city park to feed the squirrels,” said O’Connor. “Socially in the the city, they were habituated to people. They weren’t afraid so you could feed them.”
He went to Westfield State. He wanted to be a guidance counselor but could not get a job. He got married and moved to Eastham to an unfinished house owned by his wife’s parents. He finished the house and took a job with the Harwich Youth Center.
“My in-laws had a bird feeder,” he said. “They would feed the birds. I was mesmerized by what was coming in their yard. I had the book out, with a pair of binoculars.”
He started going for walks in the woods every day and he began noticing birds. What bird was that? “Once I learned the feeder birds,” said O’Connor, “I learned the Cape is a special place because of the crazy diversity of habitat.”
“Kettle ponds support a lot of ducks. Ocean supports a lot of sea birds. Bay beaches support a lot of shore birds.”
He liked what he was learning, and he kept looking to learn more. He wasn’t sure why. He just wanted to. “I remember stopping at a pond to look at ducks and there were a whole lot of other bird watchers at this pond.”
O’Connor didn’t know what to think. “It was Herring Pond in Eastham. It was a foggy day. They were seeing red-headed ducks, birds I had never heard of before. That was the first time I saw a spotting scope. That was the first time I ever realized other people were doing this. I didn’t even think it was a hobby. It was just something to do.” He met members of the Cape Cod Bird Club at the pond that day.
It was the late 1970s. “I went to one of the meetings. None of them were my age, “ said O’Connor, who was in his 20s at the time. “Everyone else at that age is either working or drunk.”
As O’Connor talked in the Bird Watcher’s General Store, a number of customers came in to buy birdseed or other products. None of them appeared to be in their 20s. “Orleans is the oldest town in the commonwealth,” said O’Connor. “People have the time and opportunity” for birdwatching.
While O’Connor was learning about birding from his own study and from the older members of the Cape Cod Bird Club, he changed jobs. “I got a job with a friend delivering coal, honest to God coal, just like you see in London, and everywhere we went for deliveries, everybody had bird feeders.”
“It hit me. I could sell birdfeeders.”
A 29-year-old Goofball Bird Guy Opens A Store
The idea for the Bird Watcher’s General Store was that most birdwatching stores, said O’Connor, were more like gift shops. “You had to go to a grain store to get feed. You had to go to a camera store to get binoculars. You had to go to a book store to get a bird book.” He wanted to put them all under one roof.
As his longtime employee Cathy Clark, who also draws the illustrations for his column, said of why she started working for the store, “It seemed more like a nature center than a retail shop. He actually knows stuff about birds. There was nothing like it.”
So he had an idea. All he had to do was find a landlord willing to believe in the concept. He approached real estate agents, and most didn’t even ask his name, he said. “I wasn’t getting a lot of ‘Go for it.’ Nobody had ever heard of it before.”
“They didn’t want a 29-year-old goofball bird guy,” he said.
But there was one landlord in Orleans who was willing to work with him. “Her husband was a big-time birder,” he said, “so they got the concept.” The store opened in 1983. He recalls his first customers being a couple named Don and Bobbie. “They bought little bag of birdseed. I took their picture. It’s around here somewhere.”
Six years later a property across the street, an old candle shop, became available. It is his current location. “My goal was to stay in business long enough so that the people who said I told you so would be wrong,” said O’Connor. His store has been in business for 30 years.
Words About Birds
He kept studying and learning. “I realized there’s a lot of cool places to go. I used to sit and look at the bird book and think, some day, I’d like to see a road runner. Or some day I may want to see a puffin.”
Vacations became mixed with birding. “I would take vacations and work the bird part into it,” said O’Connor.”
In 2000, the newspaper put out the word that they were looking to add a column about birding, said O’Connor. At first, he said he didn’t want to do it. He said he was not a writer. But he knew someone was going to do it. So why not him.
He set it up with the easiest format he could think of – Questions and Answers.
In his store, on the street, in the woods, or now through his column and email, he gets questions. “Ninety percent are about squirrels. Everybody complains about squirrels. The next eight percent is how to get rid of birds. How to get rid of crows. How to get rid of woodpeckers banging on my house.“ The final two percent make up the column.
The trek from newspaper columnist to author began when a number of his columns were published in the “Best American Science & Nature Writing of 2004,” edited by Harvard professor Steven Pinker, who has a home in Wellfleet, said O’Connor.
When O’Connor suggested to the publisher, Houghton Mifflin, that he had more columns that could make a book, they suggested a subsidiary, Beacon Press, who published both books.
“Ninety-eight percent of this for the casual, backyard birder,” said O’Connor. “If I write 100 percent about birding, it gets a little dull. “I’m trying to write it in a fun way.”
At the end of the interview, O’Connor was asked one question: “What do birds think when they see me cooking chicken on the grill?”
“They hate you,” he said. “And they’re also thinking, Vinnie, what happened?”
Chickens are named “Vinnie.” Who knew?
— Brian Tarcy