The other day, my boyfriend and I were very amused by the billboards we saw along the road into Pittsburgh. “RAPTORS!” proclaimed one. “PENGUINS!” said another. These billboards were advertising the National Aviary, which happened to be near our hotel, so we dropped by the next morning.
An aviary, if you’re not familiar with the term, is like a zoo for birds. The National Aviary has about 150 species of birds. There was also the occasional mammal – I spotted a mouse in one cage (ok, that was not part of the display) and a sloth in another (pretty sure that was intentional), but otherwise, it’s all birds. A few are in individual cages. The bald eagle and Steller’s sea eagle each gets its own spot, open to the sky. Most are grouped together in larger habitats, like a tropical rainforest and a grassland.
One of our first stops was feeding time at the lorikeet cage. Lorikeets are noisy little parrots that like nectar. At feeding time, you can buy a little cup for $3. Or you can let someone else do it and take pictures of them:
One of my favorite birds was this one, which wanders around the rainforest room. Shortly before I took this picture, it flew up to a branch where a bunch of ibises were making an awful racket, sidled up to them, and made this pose:
It worked – they shut up and flew away. But the most remarkable thing about this bird is that it’s a Victoria crowned pigeon, native to New Guinea. The pigeons most of us know the best are filthy-looking birds that walk around in cities, but really the pigeons and doves make up quite a lovely and diverse group. There are hundreds of species. Many have beautiful colors. This one has crazy head-feathers and is the size of a chicken. It’s not the pigeons’ fault someone domesticated them and let them take over the world’s cities. And I must admit, I like the city ones, too. They’re funny.
The wetlands display included quite a few flamingos:
Fun fact: Flamingos get their color from their diet. In the wild, they eat pink food and extract it that way, but in captivity, they’re normally fed some kind of color supplement.
I found the whole aviary experience delightful. We were there on a weekday, which meant it was overrun with tiny children, which was part of the fun. Near the penguin exhibit, my walking was temporarily impeded by a girl, about three, who was having, really, the only appropriate reaction to this stuff: pulling on her father’s hand, pointing, and screaming, “DADDY! DUCK! DUCK! DUCK!” (You can see the ducks and the penguins on the aviary’s Penguin Cam.)
We particularly enjoyed the bird show “Wings!” It cost $5 extra, and it was so worth it. For about 20 minutes, we learned about birds and habitat conservation and – ok, mostly, birds flew around and it was so cool. The macaws showed off their climbing skills. A whole bunch of vultures flew right over my head, raising quite a wind. There were live people talking, but also a video that introduced the show and each bird’s habitat. Birds flew in either from over a wall or from cages up near the ceiling that were wired to open at certain times.
The show was fun, partly because birds are awesome and it’s impressive to see them up close, and partly because it had a toe firmly over the line that divides tasteful from cheesy. The last bird, a bald eagle, came out to “God Bless the U.S.A.” I think it actually struck a dramatic pose on the line “I’m proud to be an American.” At the end of its segment, it showed off its wings in front of a fireworks display on the screen.
Actually, even better than that was what happened after the show. They brought out a very disheveled-looking parrot with a special skill. This picture is terrible, but I have to share:
Her special skill is accepting dollar bills and putting them in the donation box. Don’t worry, I think the dishevelment is from molting, not disease. (I hope so, anyway.) She looked so pleased with herself. I was able to resist on this visit, but the next time I go, I’m taking a stack of one-dollar bills.
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