At a quarter to four in the morning, a small group huddles in front of the North Park Village Nature Center on Chicago's northwest side. Our guide, naturalist Jerry Garden, questions the young couple walking toward us: "Are you here for the owl prowl?"
When they say yes, I ask Jerry jokingly, "Why else?" He says I'd be surprised; folks jog at this hour. But I'm amazed I'm here, sipping coffee from a thermos when only a half hour ago I was dead asleep.
The group is well prepared, bundled up in hooded parkas, wool caps, and hiking boots. Unlike last month's owl prowl, held in the early evening, this wee-hours morning trek attracts only diehard nature fans. There are no bare heads or skinny-heeled boots, nor are there any squirming, impatient children--they were here last month, and the owls stayed away.
Jerry asks how many of us have ever seen an owl; about half the hands go up. Karla and I keep ours down. She whispers, "I guess the zoo doesn't count." A middle-aged man in a green quilted jumpsuit tells how he's been fascinated by owls ever since a great horned grabbed his fishing lure. But Karla and I don't aspire to any sighting so dramatic; the mere glimpse of a great horned or screech owl, the two species native to the Chicago area, will satisfy us.
Our group has grown larger within the last ten minutes; we're almost ready to begin. Jerry reminds us that owls have remarkable vision and hearing, so as soon as we reach our first location we must remain quiet and motionless.
"Isn't it true," someone says," that two dozen people can't be unobtrusive?"
We all laugh, but Jerry is encouraging. He insists that owls do appear for large groups. And as we amble down the trail in the dark, crunching dead leaves and the remains of snow underfoot, I want to believe him. It's four in the morning, and I expect the owls to honor our endeavor.
We should be able to spot one--after all, owls are everywhere. Only tiny sections of the globe are totally owl-less, the centermost section of the Sahara, for instance. Owls are not threatened by nasty predators. They will devour mice, chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, and even pheasants, but nothing hunts them except larger owls. And at 24" tall, the great horned is pretty darn big.
That's why Jerry calls the smaller screech owl first, mimicking a series of high-pitched, soulful "screeches"--if he calls the great horned first, the screech owls will stay away for fear they'll be someone's dinner.
We are patient, we are still, but no luck. Not a screech in sight. It is time to call the big birds. For this, Jerry has brought a tape player and an actual recording of a great horned owl.
Silence. The tape player clicks on. Then Hoo, hoo-oo, hoo, hoo. Hoo, hoo-oo, hoo, hoo.
We wait. I gaze into the black sky specked with stars, the blacker branches of trees, and look for the long tufted "ears" of the great horned. Nothing. Jerry tries the call again. Nada. So I listen to my breathing, feel the cold sting my eyes. And wait.
Jerry decides we should try another location. We walk until we reach an open prairie where owls have been frequently sighted. I remember this spot from our last owl prowl. Then our silence was broken by roaring traffic, the crescendo and decrescendo of passing boom boxes, and an overhead stream of airplanes--at least one a minute. Children shivered and complained about the cold. A developmentally disabled adult had grabbed Jerry's flashlight, refused to give it back, and paced about in circles, contributing his own owl calls while his guardian ignored him.
Tonight we are quiet, hoping our seriousness will pay off. We gaze into the distant trees. Our wildest hope is to see a great horned in motion, sailing over the field with outstretched wings a mere three feet from the ground. Owls are territorial, and now is their nesting season. If they hear another owl, a bird threatening their territory, they quickly respond.
But none shows, not even for our well-behaved audience. It is time for plan B: a caravan to another urban forest. Karla and I ride with Jerry and hear about the "dumbest screech owl in the world"--one who flew nearby after Jerry started playing the great horned calls. Obviously something was wrong with his instincts.
We're standing on a paved parking lot in the woods, facing a gleaming half-moon and a hazy purple sky. This is the second site we've tried in these woods, with no success. Jerry plays the great horned hoots. I wonder what would happen if someone did see an owl. Would he point, call out, and scare it away? Or would he keep still, share it with no one?
There are footsteps behind us; I turn around quickly. A couple--not from our group--is taking a shortcut through the woods: strange behavior for this hour. They stop for a moment; the woman says, "I don't know, they're just standing there."
The sky is brightening to cobalt; the horizon becomes redder. A crow caws. Then another. A woman claims she saw something through her binoculars, way back there. Maybe an owl, maybe a hawk. So Jerry plays the great horned call again, and we wait. And wait.
Thoreau wrote that the great horned or "hooting" owl emits the "most melancholy sound in nature," similar to the "dying moans" of someone who "has left hope behind." It's even more depressing to hear its call on tape, to hear Jerry finally say, "Sorry, folks. Guess the owls aren't cooperating tonight."
The morning music is in full swing: cardinals freeping, sparrows chirping, and chickadees crying their "rusty gate" song. Maybe next month we'll be luckier. We console ourselves by identifying animal tracks in the mud: raccoon, possum, a dog, maybe a deer. When we pull into the nature center parking lot, the sun is a hot red curve crawling up the horizon. Next time, we all agree, the owls will surely grace us with their presence.