Discovering Urban Birds by Dorothy Pirovano

Discovering Urban Birds by Dorothy Pirovano

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

Black-crowned Night Heron
Mature Black-crowned Night Heron

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,

IMG_0035_2
Immature Black-crowned Night Heron

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.

RoSals

It is the last of the family owned restaurants on Taylor, the street that runs through the center of the neighborhood where immigrants congregated in such numbers in the early decades of the 20th Century that it earned its designation as Little Italy. Salvatore would go to the Fulton Street markets most every morning to select his meat and produce for the day. Roseanne would stay behind in the kitchen, making fresh pasta and starting sauces from the recipes that her mother and grandmother perfected. The laughter and toasts of the diners feasting at the nine tables on the first floor bounce off the marred wood floor, pounded tin ceiling, and white-washed walls cluttered with dozens of family photos. Its name is their names: Roseanne and Salvatore… RoSal’s.

Our first time there was a test. I had a client coming in from the East Coast and when I asked about dinner, she was delighted. “How ‘bout Italian – authentic Italian,” she emphasized, with a New Jersey delivery that elongates vowels and drops “r’s.” She grew up in a household where Mom made pasta and Dad made sauce so she was picky, she said. No pressure.

My husband Larry and I had our favorites but I spent a couple days asking others about theirs. Rosebud, Tuscany, Carmine’s, Gene and Georgetti’s – all came up, but they have “touristy” stamped all over them, not authentic. An acquaintance described RoSal’s using adjectives that reeked of authentic: nothing fancy or forced, old-country friendly, grandma’s recipes, last of its kind, treat you like family. It sounded worthy of a test.

Linda, the short, round, smiling hostess/manager/server for the night, greeted us warmly and I explained about my client coming in without saying my husband and I were there to rate the food and experience. Eight of the nine tables in the main floor dining room were full and we took the last one, right next to the open kitchen, noting the two by the window overlooking Taylor Street would be a better spot. We ordered house specialties and were struck by Linda’s invitation to change ingredients at will. “If you want spinach in that rather than broccoli, no problem. Change the pasta if you’d like, or the sauce. You can throw shrimp in that vegetarian dish. Whatever you’d like, the kitchen is glad to substitute.”

Dinner was superb, delicious, reminiscent of dinners we had in small towns in central Italy. Not only were we treated like family but we seemed to be their absolutely favorite relatives.

Three days later I returned with my client in tow. She looked around approvingly at the family-owned-restaurant décor and at Linda, who smiled her way to the front of the room. “You must be Melissa,” Linda beamed at my client after giving me a long-lost-friend hug. “Welcome to RoSal’s. Dorothy’s told me so much about you! I’m so glad to meet you.” and she turned to put us at her best table, in the corner by the window.

We could have been served hot dogs and I’m convinced Melissa would have loved the place. But instead the $6 a glass house chianti, fried ravioli, antipasto salad, chicken RoSal’s and Italian ice served in a frozen lemon exceeded her expectations. Pleasantly full. Feeling warm and cozy. The evening ended with a hug from a client who is apt to be business as usual.

RoSal’s never disappoints, even when Linda isn’t there for Joe, who now runs the place since Roseanne and Sal unofficially retired, takes over and gets to know his regulars in the same, embracing way. He’ll pull a chair up to your table and talk about anything – his kids, yours, vacations, what’s new, how’s business, how the White Sox are doing for they play not far from RoSals and fans congregate there before or after games. He forgives Larry for being a Cubs fan and they both envision the day when their teams are on opposite sides of the World Series and cream the other side of town. A born-and-bred Sox fan with the glory of having a World Series win a few years back, and a husband who I love desperate to see his guys “win one before I croak,” as he’s fond of saying, I dread the specter of a north side vs. south side series and find myself silently relieved when my Sox go into a slump.

I used to order shells with broccoli every time we were there, adding shrimp usually, or chicken when I was up for a change. But chicken Florentine beckoned when it was served at the table next to us and it threatened to become my regular except that the specials on the last page of the menu continually tempt explorations and never disappoint. Larry always orders meat lasagna even when he vows he is going to try something new. He doesn’t even ask for a bite of mine, and Linda reassures him that ordering the one thing you love  most is smart, because it’s not like you come every night or even once a week or month.

Larry had a yen for that lasagna while recovering from surgery at nearby Rush Medical Center so I called and asked if they did carry-outs. Nuts, I said when the person on the other end of the line said sorry, no. He so loves your lasagna.

“Dorothy, is that you?” It was Linda who put Larry and lasagna together.

“Yeah. Larry’s over here at Rush and I thought I’d get him a big treat.”

“Be here in a half hour and we’ll have it ready for you,” she said without missing a beat.

The package I took back to the hospital had lasagna to last four meals, a loaf of their crisp-crust bread, the antipasto salad and half a pan of tiramisu – all for the price of a lasagna entrée. What can I say?

RoSal’s is our hands-down favorite restaurant here or anywhere. We long for a return trip when we haven’t been there for a while. And Linda, who gives us both long-lost-friend hugs when we walk through the door, still asks about Melissa as though she saw her last week. I smile at her Linda-ness. It was eight years ago.

Diehard fans

A blessedly short article in today’s Chicago Tribune reported on the crosstown hatred Sox fans have for Cub fans and their disdain for the playoff series. All I could do was groan.

I’m a diehard Sox fan and I come from original diehards. My father’s first game was with his father at the 1917 Sox-Giants World Series and the seven-year old thrilled to see the South Siders beat the hated New York team four games to two. I was raised in a household where I thought the other New York team was named the G.D. Yankees (Dad didn’t swear in front of his little girls) and when I later dated and married this Cubs fan, he was grudgingly happy for me.

For more than 20 years, the firm I worked with represented various professional Chicago sports teams, which gave me a view of fans from the inside. The true over-the-top diehards were scary. The stereotype would be a 20-something male who doesn’t have much of a life and thus identifies so closely with his team that he hates anything that might take away some of its prestige or limelight. Truth is, all but the “20-something male” is pretty on target. These diehards come in all genders, ages and backgrounds and were well known to team staff, often nicknamed (e.g. The Addams Family) and concern about what they might say or do was everpresent.

Now I can’t say that those quoted in the Tribune story fall into this category but I can tell you with certainty that all of the Sox fans I know – and there are many, many, many – are rooting for the Cubs. Maybe not as enthusiastically as they would if the Sox were in the post-season but we got our series in 2005, and if we can’t be in play this year having another Chicago team win a World Series will be something to cheer.

Check in again if there is ever a Sox-Cubs World Series. But then we survive cross-town games every year and there are more camera shots of cross-town couples holding hands than anything else.

For today’s game, my Cubs fan husband and our Cubs fan son won the lottery and scored tickets from the Cubs eight rows behind the Cardinal’s dugout – and at a price comparable to a regular season game. And this Sox fan will be looking for them on TV and root, root, rooting for the Cubbie.