On our way home from traveling 15,000 miles chasing birds all across the country, we stopped at a park in downtown Pittsburgh and came across the broadest collection of birds we’d seen anywhere in one place.
It was the National Aviary, which could be called the international aviary. Hundreds of birds from six continents pass so close by in many of the chambers that you can feel the wind from their beating wings. Some of the world’s most precious birds – Andean Condors, Birds-of-Paradise, African Penguins, toucans, hornbills and cuckoos – share the stage with more common owls, gulls, doves and pigeons.
With fall migration behind us, we thought this would be a good time to consider how aviaries and zoos can help birders get through the slower times and open up the wider world of birds we can’t see otherwise. Our travels let us visit a series of zoos, bird parks and indoor aviaries along with dozens of conservation projects, research centers and bird hotspots. While we all prefer to see our birds in the wild, institutions such as the National Aviary play a distinct role in a time when birds are in trouble.
“It is very powerful to see a bird, like a Guam Kingfisher which is extinct in the wild, up close, just feet away from you, and to understand that this bird is one of only a couple hundred left in the world,’’ said Steve Latta, the director of conservation at the aviary. “It gives visitors a sense of how urgently needed conservation efforts are.’’
The aviary sponsors conservation projects around the world, including on some of the toughest challenges for birds. It’s researching ways of battling back against invasive species in the Pacific Islands, studying how Andean Condors in the mountains of South America react to climate change, and exploring migration across the hemisphere through the experiences of the Louisiana Waterthrush.
But the aviary is mostly about its location in Pittsburgh, where a half dozen exhibits feature birds of the rainforest, wetlands and forests. On the day we visited, a crowded holiday weekend, the halls were filled with children walking among peacocks, ducks and squawking parrots. There’s hardly a better way to build an appreciation for birds. “We want visitors to the National Aviary to walk away with a deeper understanding of birds and the role they play in a healthy and thriving environment,” said Latta. Particularly for children, all it sometimes takes to make a lifelong impression is an encounter with a dazzling bird.
Here are examples of some of the exotic birds at the aviary:
One of our favorite things about the aviary’s approach is how many of the exhibits let visitors mix it up with the birds. Crowds of people become such a common site to the birds that they don’t seem wary at all. The exhibits we liked best were the two large enclosures that approximated the rainforest and wetlands. Both were loaded with birds — many of which we were seeing for the first time — flying every which way. We also loved the smaller enclosure set up for grassland birds, lined with five short trees the birds perched in, often just a few feet from you.
Here’s another gallery from the aviary: