Pittsburgh Stories and Tips

The National Aviary on the Northside of Pittsburgh

Benito, the Hyacinth Macaw Photo, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


I have never enjoyed "Breakfast with the Birds," a regular event at the National Aviary, but a few of them have "let go" after breakfast on my head! I must learn to get there earlier--or later--and not to wear good clothes without a coverup and to leave my coat at the front desk. No matter what indignities I have suffered, I return again and again, and I call Benito and Stanley my friends.

Benito doesn’t return my friendship—unless he is out of his cage. On my most recent visit, he wasn’t taken out, so he was surly and angry that day.

The drop-dead gorgeous hyacinth macaw is a comedian when he is on his handler’s arm. About three feet from head to tail, he likes to hang upside down from her outstretched arm before he straightens himself upright and looks at me as though he is proud of himself and expects me to commend him. He wants my attention then, like a poodle walking on two legs, but once he is back in his cage, there is no talking to this guy without his trying to bite! That’s when I inform him that he is no longer the star of the show here, anyway. Stanley, the African penguin, comes out to meet us every day at 1pm, and he is always a little darling! So there, Benito!

Stanley is an African penguin, a little guy who will not grow to more than eight pounds. The aviary was excited about raising him in captivity--another "Pittsburgh First!" His primary handler was not there on the day when we met him, so his second-string handler presented him and told stories about how attached young Stanley was to the other "mother" figure (who happened to be a man).

This event impressed on us the amount of care, even worry, involved in raising a bird and making him feel happy and secure. Apparently, it takes more than one person to help the little creature adapt to his artificial environment, and then there is the huge task of skills training to help him develop to his full potential. Not to worry, though, because Stanley has a mother—or at least he thinks he has! If you think birds aren’t as endearing as, let’s say dogs, then you must meet Stanley.

I have yet to see the owl encounter at 11:30 am each day, but that is on my agenda for my next visit. Who wouldn’t want an up-close-and-personal visit with this guy?

I expect to find that his stiff, poker-face exterior masks an intriguing personality. Like all close encounters, my next one will certainly change my preconceived notions about this species.

But regularly scheduled events are only part of the attraction of the National Aviary on Pittsburgh’s Northside. The large indoor tropical habitat resembles a conservatory, only with one important addition: birds. Sitting there on a bench is like sitting in a park, but one with extremely lush foliage and a beautiful water feature, complete with bridge. I see parents and grandparents sitting there on benches while the kids run around to investigate every squawk or splash. So, I think of it as an indoor park, a welcome change of scenery in winter. It’s warm in there!

Like any park, this one has pigeons, but Victoria is a beauty, albeit a pacing, nervous type. One doesn’t have to crane his neck peering into the treetops to find her, for she constantly parades, moonwalk-style, across the bridge.

What park in the north has flamingos? This one has them, plus hornbills, spoonbills, parrots, yellow conures, and Bali mynahs, one of the rarest birds in the world (only eight left in the year 2000!). Foliage and water are alive with the songs of many endangered and threatened species.

This isn’t just any aviary. It’s our National Aviary, America’s only non-profit organization of this sort. Concerned primarily with conservation of natural habitats and species, the aim of educational programs here is to promote respect for the environment and for projects that repopulate rare and endangered species on every continent. One of their ongoing projects that I find particularly interesting is called "To Russia with Love," their ten years of ongoing work to restore red-crowned cranes to the Amur region of Russia. Conservationists take eggs from this facility in Pittsburgh to hatch there. Meet a proud (though estranged) parent:

You can read all about the project and the cooperative work of Russians and Americans here. I find this a rather "cute" story about the hassles of traveling with fragile eggs that must hatch within a specified window of opportunity—and we regular travelers think we have problems!

Like the red-crowned cranes, many large birds are kept outside. Windowed walls enable visitors to view them from the warmth of the building.

Eagles, hawks, vultures and others participate in the RAPTOR education program in-house or at a requested site. (They can be brought to you!) A huge selection of programs for students of all ages make the National Aviary a valuable resource for educators, who can also take classes here and get credits for them. Classrooms in the building are state-of-the-art, and so is the facility’s long-distance learning program, called RAVEN.

Whether you want an education about an endangered species or just an afternoon in an indoor park, our National Aviary is a must-see for any visitor to Pittsburgh. Just be sure to take off your coat--and not only for the purpose of staying a while! You might want to wear an old, washable hat, too. Rest assured that the birds are well screened and quarantined for a year before they are admitted to the avian population. Try to choose a bench not under a tree, and take a book if you want.

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