An Interview with Hilarious Bob Tarte
Bob and his wife Linda live on the edge of a shoe-sucking, mink-infested swamp near the West Michigan village of Lowell. When not fending off mosquitoes during temperate months and chipping ice out of plastic wading pools in the depths of winter, Bob writes books about his pets.
Bob is currently writing a new book about animals called What the Mink Stole – Painfully Obvious Lessons Learned from Pets, Wildlife, and Ghosts.
The back-to-nature challenge
Bob: Grand Rapids, Michigan, just a few miles west of Lowell.
Bob: When I met my wife, Linda, she was living in a back-to-nature cabin in northern Michigan with no indoor plumbing and no electricity, and I was living in downtown Grand Rapids (with indoor plumbing and electricity). I knew she could never be happy living in the city, and I was getting fed up with urban life. People kept breaking into my car to steal such treasures as a $2 pair of sunglasses and a $1 notebook. I found a house in the country that we both liked, and I grew to love living with trees as neighbors.
Bob: Nature is right out the door. We live in a wooded area not far from the Grand River. Since I’ve been keeping track, I’ve seen 128 species of birds on our property. There are also some nice parks we visit to see birds and also just to get away from our very demanding pets.
Bob: Definitely we see more wildlife in the summer. In the winter, we have mornings that get as cold as -18F (-28C). But birds visit our bird feeders all year, and in the winter we see some bird species that we don’t see in warmer months, like the Pine Siskin and Dark-eyed Junco.
Bob: It is a seasonal pond that fills up in the spring and can be bone dry by the time winter rolls around. But we also have a few small areas that stay wet all the time due to ground water. You don’t want to step one of those, because they are like quicksand.
Bob: We’re about two miles from the stores and fast food joints in Lowell, and a little farther from downtown Lowell, which is only a few blocks long.
Bob: We do have a vegetable garden, but it never does all that well. My wife has back troubles, and I have always been lazy, so we don’t clear away the immensely tall weeds that grow up alongside the garden keep the sunlight from the vegetables. My wife has many flower gardens, and some of those do pretty well.
Bob: We’ve had butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) and (Lantana camara) for the years, and we have serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.), which the birds like. Otherwise, there are various wild berries and wildflowers in our woods that keep birds, butterflies, and other insects happy.
"I never knew such an exotic looking bird lived in Michigan"
Bob: My favorite is the outrageously beautiful male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a chunky fellow who is all black-and-white except for a bright scarlet bib under his chin. This was the bird that got me interested in birding, because I never knew such an exotic looking bird lived in Michigan. We also get lots of American Goldfinches, five woodpecker species, Blue Jays, titmice, nuthatches… lots of variety.
Bob: We have Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and they can be very bold. I’ve had one fly over, hover in the air, and give me a long and possibly disapproving stare before buzzing away.
Bob: A Cooper’s Hawk hangs around sometimes and goes after the songbirds. For some reason, it seems partial to We also get the occasional Red-tailed Hawk, Bald Eagle, and Osprey, but they don’t go after the birds. We get two or three owl species, too. Technically, they aren’t but don’t tell them that.
Their wish is my command
After writing about birds what prompted you to write “Kitty Cornered”, a book about cats?
Bob: The cats were annoyed that our birds were getting so much attention and demanded a book of their own. I wanted to stay on their good side, so I decided to humor them.
Bob: I never cared much for animals before marrying Linda. Then I realized that I loved just about every kind of pet. We’ve had many pet birds, but you can’t snuggle them very well. I have been able to give most of our cats a hug, and that’s endeared me to them. However, my favorite cat of all time was Frannie, and she seldom let me touch her. But we were very close. She was my cat.
Bob: I have tried to get to know our cats, but they are very, very deep. I am familiar with their habits and preferences, but they are mysterious beings.
Bob: Some people are jealous of a cat’s independence.
Binkywas the least friendly pet we ever had"
Bob: My wife’s first choice for a pet was a bunny, because she thought they were sweet. But our first rabbit, Binky, was the least friendly pet we ever had. He had a sour disposition. He liked to be in the same room with to be held or petted.
Extraordinary life with 52 pets in the house
Bob: It would be too complicated to describe. Fortunately, I am away at a job in the morning and Linda does most of the pet chores. At one time, we had 52 pets, and almost every hour of the day involved some pet chores. Added to that, during the spring and summer, my wife volunteered to help raise and release orphan songbirds, and that added to the complexity. Basically, a morning consists of feeding our two cats, duck pen chores, keeping our two cats from fighting, taking care of our African Dusty, and other indoor birds, and trying to stop Dusty from wrenching his metal dish loose and throwing it around inside his cage.
Bob: Last winter I caught a glimpse of an Evening Grosbeak in
Bob: I am less stupid about writing than I am about nature.
Bob: I started off writing a column for a Los Angeles-based music magazine called The Beat writing reviews of ‘world music’ CDs. I started writing about my pets in my column, and before long I decided to try to write a book about them.
Bob: In the beginning, I simply wanted to put names to the birds I was seeing after I’d been dazzled by my first Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Then I started learning the songs, and I was captivated by them. But it was probably the thrill of the spring migration that really got to me. It is like a treasure hunt seeking out these gorgeous year, and birds are so smart and so observant. We are slow and dull witted in comparison.
Bob: I started out with a $35 pair of binoculars.
Bob: I have gotten better binoculars.
A unique act of grace by a woodpecker
Bob: We raised a Red-bellied Woodpecker my wife named Big Boy. After we released him, he would show up when we took our daily walk to the river through our woods. He would fly from tree to tree just to be with us. Later, we were convinced he encouraged a Green Heron to eat after Wildlife Rehab Center released the heron on our property. It turned out that the heron had been in the cage next to the woodpecker at the rehab center. We think that being with his friend the woodpecker gave the Green Heron a boost and brought him back to full health. I tell the whole story in my book Feather Brained.
Bob: We once raised a batch of seven Northern Flicker woodpeckers, and they were wild and crazy. We loved them, and they loved to peck us when we brought them food a walk-in outdoor cage. Trust me, you don’t want to get pecked by a woodpecker! They weren’t mean. They were just exuberant.
Bob: They are attuned to nature in different ways, though I do run into people who live out in the country and don’t have much interest in nature.
"I miss her every single day"
Bob: I recently lost my African parrot Bella to a heart attack. I would treasure having even another moment with her.
Bob: Yes, of course.
Bob: Get a bird feeder, if that’s possible, and get to know the birds that use it. Once you know those birds by sight, get to know their songs. Then expand from there – and one good way is to go out looking for birds with a birder. I picked up a lot that way.
Four books, one podcast, what's next - ghosts??
Bob: I am very uncomfortable around human beings and wouldn’t cope well with the rejection that stand-up comedians receive.
Bob: I put some wildlife cameras in our woods lately and am having lots of fun seeing videos of coyotes and foxes that I didn’t even know were out there. I post some of these on Twitter and Facebook. I am very slowly working on a new book about pets, wildlife, and ghosts, too. Yes, ghosts will be in there.)
"This is as close as I'll ever get to a real live Hoopoe"
Bob: I’ve always loved seeing photos of Hoopoes and wearing this beautiful shirt is as close as I’ll ever come to one. I love the liveliness of the design, and you provide such a wide choice of shirt colors. I wasn’t expecting that.
Bob: Cornell Lab of Ornithology