Steps to Thriving in a Chicago Winter
- Visit a nature preserve on December 21st to celebrate the start of winter and the shortest day of the year. You’ll miss the riotous flowers and green leaves, but in their absence you’ll notice an unobscured praying mantis egg sac and marvel at this tiny feat of engineering. The black-capped chickadees, loyal Chicago residents long after most of their peers have fled south, will cheerfully greet you from the trees and might swoop low to see if you have any seeds for them. A few other winter regulars will make guest appearances: a red-bellied woodpecker here, a white-breasted nuthatch there. After a while you spot a bird sitting on top of a bare tree. You expect it to be a rock pigeon or mourning dove, but when you get your binoculars to your eyes your jaw drops. A magnificent red and blue bird, its face covered in a black and white mask, is scanning the ground and then dives for prey as you watch, astonished at this magical creature. You later learn this is an American kestrel and you try to follow it around the preserve for a while as it flies, dives, hunts and rests, but it loses you quickly.
- In January, begin to haunt the lakefront during your free time in hopes of viewing a snowy owl. Become increasingly irritated that you don’t see one when it seems as though every birder on Facebook has become casual friends with a snowy. Your partner will stumble upon one sitting on a bench when he’s out for a bike ride. Someone will see one sitting on a streetlight in broad daylight. You will continuously arrive just a little too late. On a free Friday, bike to a bird sanctuary along the lake and walk through the bare trees to the beach. As you approach, you’ll see something huge and white soar overhead and land near the water. Your heart leaps, but you’ll have been fooled by unusually large seagulls one too many times to fully give in to your excitement. You focus on the bird in your binoculars and—pure joy. A snowy owl. White and gorgeous, massive and calm. You stand there for seconds, minutes, soaking it in, until another birder approaches you to point out a second owl even closer, but half hidden behind a shelf of ice. That birder departs shortly after, leaving you outnumbered 2:1 by snowy owls, a scenario beyond your wildest dreams. (And, truth be told, snowy owls have been showing up in your dreams as of late.) You stand on the icy sand, binoculars glued to your eyes and lips pulled into a grin, delighting as they rotate their heads obscenely far in both directions and elegantly shake out their wings. A man comes by and asks what you’re looking at. You point out the owls and wait for his mind to be blown. He shrugs and says he’s unimpressed. You watch him continue on his way, and even he stops to pull out his phone and snap a picture of the snowy owl on the ice shelf against the bright blue sky.
- Winter is going strong. Feeling slightly desperate, you’ll try the hygge thing and make gallons of soup and string up twinkly lights in your living room. Then you’ll realize that Copenhagen is currently 40 degrees warmer than Chicago, and thereafter will view all things hygge with suspicion.
- Visit an indoor conservatory and revel in the humid, warm air and luscious tropical plants. Suddenly you’ll hear the familiar chirp of a cardinal and look up to see a flash of bright red amidst the green. You’ve been seeing cardinals all winter but haven’t heard one call. It’ll be unclear if this one is heralding the imminent arrival of spring, or if it’s just been fooled into early song by his luxurious and temperature controlled setting.
- Take comfort in the barrenness of the world around you.
- Visit a sauna.
- Visit a nearby state park while they’re offering a nighttime owl walk with an expert. This expert will first talk to your group about all things owl related and offer up a few of his calls, one of which actually gives you the shivers (you cover up with an uncomfortable giggle). He’ll tell you how owls are extremely unpopular among other birds. Upon reflection, this makes sense- owls are killers that hunt at night, making them a sort of bird boogeyman, but it’s still surprising given how much you love them for no good reason. He is remarkably confident that you will see at least one barred owl when you go out into the grounds. You doubt him. The twenty of you in the group bundle in all your warmest gear and head into the park, using flashlights to avoid the roots and rocks in the ground. After about ten minutes, you stop near a ravine and line up along the path. All flashlights go off. The night is full of stars and rushing water. You realize that Chicago is a bubble of light and noise and people that insulates you from this, and for a minute you can’t remember why anyone would choose to live there. The owl expert starts calling: Who cooks for you! Who cooks for you, owl! His voice echoes in the tall trees. You’ll wait in silence. He calls again: Who cooks for you! Who cooks for you, owl! More silence. Just when you’re starting to feel silly you hear a beating of wings overhead and gasps run up the line of people. “There! In that tree!” Your guide turns on a flashlight and shines it near a barred owl peering down at you all. You think it looks slightly quizzical as it searches for the invading owl among the group of humans. A minute later you hear a second owl arrive, hooting indignantly: Who cooks for you! Who cooks for you, owl! The first owl, previously silent, calls back, as they try to make sense of this situation. A current of excitement runs through the people gathered, as you realize you don’t have to be as quiet; these owls aren’t scared. You can see one clearly through your binoculars near the beam of the flashlight, its flat face scanning its surroundings. A third owl arrives! Hooting even louder, it riles up the other two and they soon start shrieking like crazed monkeys. After a few more minutes, your guide leads you out, not wanting to disturb the owls for too long. You can hear the faint hoots and shrieks following you all the way to the parking lot.
- Start going for regular walks along the lakefront. Gone are the terns and kinglets, but you‘ll have front row tickets to the best fishing show in the Midwest: common goldeneyes and red-breasted mergansers diving into Lake Michigan and coming up clutching a fish in their bills. They are undisturbed by the cold water and brutal winds as you walk briskly and jump up and down to keep warm. You watch as they disappear smoothly into the water, which closes over them as if they’d never been there. You marvel as they reemerge, sleek and triumphant.
- Make an appointment with your friend’s acupuncturist.
- Keep visiting the bird sanctuary. One day, you’ll see green leaves on a shrub and spend a few minutes caressing them. Soon you’ll hear the peculiar croak of a grackle and smile at the sight of its iridescent green head. The red-winged blackbirds will return, not yet aggressive but still assertively establishing their summer homes. You’ll wonder if the chickadees get annoyed with the kinglets and warblers taking over the trees they’ve had to themselves all winter, or if they’re happy for the company. You’ll welcome spring’s arrival, the songs and fertility bursting into the world. You’ll go to the lake to thank the ducks for keeping you company and bid them farewell as they swim for colder waters.
Sarah Roots is a writer living in Chicago, IL.