We showed up at the April birdwatching walk at the zoo, opera glasses ready, joining a small group of people earnestly comparing the high-transmission glass, baffle systems, prisms and ergonomics of their binoculars. It was our first birding adventure and we decided we might be best off keeping to the edge of the group, much like those who nonchalantly approach a tour group led by a man with a red umbrella, hanging around at the periphery, just close enough to hear him talk and trying to not be obvious in their lack of belonging.
There were ones we knew – robins, cardinals. Small and medium sized brown birds were given names like “nuthatch,” “wren” and “junco.” A flicker was called out, distinguished by the red slash around his neck. A red-headed woodpecker was attacking the bark of a maple. Not that we actually saw any of them, for our puny glasses were made to watch big people with big voices on a stage hundreds of feet away rather than things that flit and fly.
Except for the black-crowned night-heron, a fat, squat bird, so big we didn’t need magnification to see him perched on a branch overlooking the zoo’s lily pond, red beady
eyes intent on spotting a ripple set off by a fin, foot or wing. A common sighting, said our birder guide. A first for us, we novices who, since moving near the zoo in 1996 made it a favored destination for our almost daily walks. Somehow during four years of discovering the zoo’s nooks and crannies, we managed to miss spotting these white bellied giants with their distinctive black crowns and long white feather that pops out of the middle of their heads, curving along one side. That’s its ponytail, our birder noted as the group moved on. We didn’t move until the heron gave up and flew over our heads, no longer just a two-foot tall giant, but massive with a four-foot wingspan that rustled the air as he let out loud, annoyingly throaty squawks.
Imagine our amazement to see one flying in from the lake a week later as we walked past the little island in the pond south of the Farm In The Zoo. The bird, graceful in flight, landed with a thud in a messy twig nest on one of the island’s large willow trees. Then another, then a dozen returning from what must have been a successful fishing expedition. We came to know them on our many return trips.
They had a peaceful community that grew to hundreds of birds, wok wok woking as they approached their island at dusk. One day their nests were occupied when they glided back, then vacated after some back-and-forth squawking, so the returning fishermen could take a turn on the nests while their mates headed out. Weeks later, little heads, mouths agape, jutted up from the twigs, squeaking frantically as they begged for dinner. We became the-crazy-couple-with-binoculars – our new purchase – who stopped people as they strolled by, urging them to take a look at this wonder.
Fat, ugly babies emerged from their nests, hanging tight to branches as they flapped their wings, gaining courage to let go. Impatient parents would nudge a dallier off the branch,
forcing an attempt at flying. The bodies of fledglings beneath the trees showed this tough-love technique didn’t always work, but with multiple babies in each nest, parents turned their attention to others and their survival-of-the-fittest life went on. Those who did master flying soon joined their parents, sometimes holding their heads up, mouths open, hoping to be fed. Ignored, they would join the flock in twos and threes on morning and evening runs to the lake, awkward looking brown spotted youngsters standing out next to the white and black adults.
And then they were gone. Nests abandoned, headed south, no doubt, as the shortened days of late October told their body clocks it was time. The chirping of frogs could be heard again around the island, heralding their relief that the predators had moved on.
No one is sure why these notoriously shy birds that have earned a place on the endangered species list, chose this urban patch of land. The zoo has taken over their management, keeping a headcount, monitoring their health, rescuing and caring for the injured, hauling away the dead as part of a research initiative. When the pond was drained, overhauled and improved a couple years ago, it was feared that the night-herons would move on to a more hospitable place without construction, but they simply moved over to the large trees that lined the walkway near the pond, built new messy nests and set up housekeeping. When the pond renovation was complete, some moved back to their old trees while others in the colony stayed by the sidewalk. Flocks have branched out to establish night-heron neighborhoods at the Farm In The Zoo and near the Lincoln Memorial statue by the Chicago History Museum.
Each year they return – more than 600 a year occupying old nests and building new ones each spring. As common a sight as robins if you know where to look – with or without binoculars.