Bird Watcher's General Store
Bird Watcher's General Store

The Last One
12/31/21


It’s time for some kickball:

Way back in the year 2000, Bill Clinton was in the White House, the Red Sox were still perennial losers and no one had ever heard of Tom Brady. (Can you imagine?) Early in that same year, a customer, Dan Perkes (RIP), told me that the Cape Codder newspaper was looking for new writers. Dan (who turned out to be a retired big shot for the Associated Press) suggested that I write a weekly column about birds. I just chuckled at Dan’s suggestion. At that time I knew as much about writing a column as the rest of the world knew about Tom Brady, which was zero. (Can you imagine?) A week later Dan returned, and this time his prodding worked. I decided to give the bird column a shot, at least for one week. I just had to figure out how to do it.

I believe my very first column was about attracting hummingbirds. I remember staring down at my keyboard, trying to think of what to write and how to write it. I hadn’t typed a single word when a friend, by total coincidence, sent me a link to "The Straight Dope,” which was a syndicated column out of Chicago. This Q&A feature, written to dispel old wives’ tales and urban legends, had a bit of an attitude to it. Bingo! That was it. Bird talk is often dry and dull, and if I didn’t want people to fall asleep, I needed to add a little edginess to the mix, and that was something I could totally do.

For the first few years each column was proofread by one of my employees. I had the knack of hiring highly educated people and they would spend an hour or so each week fixing whatever mess I had written. I know it sounds as if I was unfairly taking advantage of my employees’ other skills, but I knew they’d much rather read about birds than carry 50-lb. bags of birdseed all morning, and I was right. They never complained.

In an effort to grab the readers’ attention, an illustration was also added to the column. Once again, I shamelessly took advantage of an employee and resident artist, Catherine Clark. Each week (and this is true) I would tell her what I wanted the image to look like and each week she would draw something totally different. We would then spend the next twenty minutes arguing. Eventually, we’d sort it out and the drawing would end up being dead-on perfect. Readers tend to under-appreciate newspaper illustrations, and that’s too bad. Every single one of Catherine’s drawings took a lot of hard work and creativity, not to mention twenty minutes of arguing.

One day I received an email from Olivia Miller, a friend in Marstons Mills. Olivia, who is the creator of the wildly popular yoga decks, spotted the columns archived on my shop’s website and told me that she liked them. She also said they needed some more editing. (Apparently, my proofreading staff had missed a few things.) Olivia then graciously offered to edit each new column, but I’d have to pay her. Her fee? It was an occasional bag of birdseed. I agreed on the spot. Every Friday after that I’d send her my column and every Saturday she’d send it back, all corrected and fixed, with the proper grammar added and the misspellings and most of my best cuss words removed. (Darn her to heck!)

People ask me how long it takes to write a column and I tell them it takes all week, which it does. Don’t forget, I still have that birdseed gig so my writing time is limited. There are plenty of days when I’m stuck inside, feeling like the ten-year-old who has to practice the violin while all the other kids in the neighborhood are out playing kickball. This brings us to the point of this column – it’s time to play more kickball.

After twenty-two years and nearly 1,200 bird columns, I’ve decided to get out of the way and stop hogging this space. I’m sure there’s a much younger and more talented writer out there who can offer readers a fresher look at birds, nature or whatever topic the newspaper seems fit. I very much appreciate the opportunity the people at the Cape Codder, both past and present, have given me. I’ve written some pretty weird things over the years and they’ve never questioned any of them, not even once. Thanks for that.

The 1,200 columns also include 1,200 illustrations and Ms. Clark drew every single one by hand. I am grateful for her weekly efforts. (Although I’m not sure I know what we will argue about from now on, but we’ll think of something.) I don’t know how many vacations, social events or yoga classes Olivia had to cut short in order to be home in time to make the weekly column corrections, but it had to be a lot. Thanks, Olivia, for both your guidance and for making me look much smarter than I am, which wasn’t easy…and you did it all for an occasional bag of birdseed.

I’m humbled by all the people, both young and old, who’ve taken the time to tell me how much they’ve enjoyed Ask the Bird Folks. Thank you, thank you, thank you to them and all the readers who have supported this column. They are the reason why one week somehow turned into twenty-two years.

Finally, I would like to thank my wife Karen, who is the very definition of a good sport. She always laughed at the jokes, even when they were pointed in her direction. She also didn’t complain about being ignored while I had to sit typing at my desk week after week. As for me, I plan to keep selling birdseed, do extra bird watching and stop being at this desk. Instead of sitting here, I’m going to get up and start doing more stuff, especially more stuff with Karen…and it’s about time.




Artwork by Catherine Clark


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