Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: Mike O'Connor's bird tales are delightful, informative

By STACEY COLE April 06. 2018 9:03PM

A little goldfinch dines at a window feeder. (Union Leader file photo)

Editor’s note: The following column was originally printed in the New Hampshire Union Leader on Saturday, April 14, 2007.

After completing 45 years of writing this column on March 31 (in 2007), I thought I had been asked about all the bird questions that could be raised.

However, I found that was not so, after reading a new book published by Beacon Press. I have been asked about horned larks, great horned owls, even a “single-horned’’ caterpillar, but a horned finch? Not yet, but put that aside for the moment.

The book, titled “Why Don’t Woodpeckers Get Headaches? And Other Bird Questions You Know You Want To Ask,’’ was authored by newspaper bird columnist, Mike O’Connor. The advance release from its publisher, Beacon Press, read in part: “For more than 20 years, Mike O’Connor has been answering common, quirky and perplexing bird questions as owner of the Bird Watcher’s General Store on Cape Cod.’’ The book is based on information gleaned from “Ask The Bird Folks,’’ a popular weekly column that appears in several Cape Cod newspapers.

I found that O’Connor’s book presents a primer on how to attract birds, their individual identities and sometimes peculiar behavior traits. He treats on various ways to attract birds, including suggestions on equipment, food for birds, types of feeders, water and suet containers as well as landscaping. In answering questions, O’Connor discusses bird-watching tools of the trade, such as field guides, binoculars and scopes. The wisdom offered is enhanced by O’Connor’s carefree writing style. Noted bird expert and field guide author Ken Kaufman wrote: “Mike O’Connor knows birds — I mean really knows them. He can deliver the straight scoop with a hilarious twist that makes it unforgettable.’’

Now to return to the one question I had never been asked. One of O’Connor’s newspaper column readers inquired: “Is there such a bird as a horned house finch?’’

The answer as explained by O’Connor was this: “By late summer, the nesting season is all but over and our yards are filled with goofy-looking juvenile birds. The horned birds you are seeing are nothing more than brand-new finches that haven’t totally lost their baby down yet. We see these freaky finches every year. Occasionally some young birds keep a few tufts of feathers on top of their heads even after their juvenile feathers have grown in, giving them a horned look. In a few weeks, the molt will be complete and the horns will be gone.’’

I must confess I could not have answered that question. Although I have seen a great many house finches, I have never seen a horned one.

O’Connor’s book delightfully answers almost any question one could ask about birds. I am impelled to declare that the Chesworth pen and ink drawings add a sprinkling of ‘salt’ to O’Connor’s bird tales. This is a fun book to read, whether nibbled a bit at a time, or in one large clump.

“Why Don’t Woodpeckers get Headaches’’ by Mike O’Connor is edited by Olivia Miller, illustrated by Michael Chesworth.

- - - - -

A Groton reader’s letter contained not only an interesting inquiry, but was a new one on me. The letter read in part: “I know crows are smart, but I didn’t know they buried their food like a squirrel!

“Today I watched a crow (I know the difference) pick up a chunk of suet from my feeder, take it to the driveway ruts, stick it in the mud and cover it with his/her bill. Do they come back another day to retrieve it?’’

The American crow is a member of the corvidae family that includes ravens, crows, magpies and jays. In my opinion, this classification may well include nature’s most intelligent birds. Although I have not seen crows bury food, I have seen their cousins the blue jays do so. It is known that jays do revisit some of their buried food locations at a later time, but whether they recall all the places they stashed food has not been determined. It is generally believed that whether the jays return to retrieve their hoard or not, the nuts and seeds they bury are discovered to the advantage of squirrels and mice.

Occasionally my old dog Ben does not clean up his plate, and I place the remains on our lawn where the crows can easily find it. It is great fun to watch them as they approach the food.

Stacey Cole, Nature Talks columnist for more than 50 years, passed away in 2014. If readers have a favorite column written by Stacey that they would like to see reprinted, please drop a note to Jen Lord at

AnimalsNature TalksGeneral NewsNewHampshire.comPhoto Feature

Follow us on Twitter Follow us on Facebook Follow our RSS feed
Union Leader app for Apple iPad or Android *
Click to download from Apple Apps StoreClick to download from Android Marketplace
* e-Edition subscription required