Sunday, September 30, 2012

National Aviary - Fun with Our Fine Feathered Friends

Dave Miller with Flamingo at the National Aviary
On the way to feed the lorikeets at the National Aviary on Pittsburgh’s North Side, I passed by Giggles, a laughing Kookaburra perched nonchalantly on a roost in her cage. A member of the kingfisher family from Australia, Giggles didn’t live up to her name until a guide gave her an aural cue. Then all hell broke loose.
The opened up with a long series of sounds so awesome, she made me chuckle with delight. Those who’ve seen the old Tarzan movies will recognize her call, which positively reeks of jungle.
Further on, I entered the lorikeet enclosure, saucer of nectar in hand. Before I could say holy parakeet, three of the colorful birds perched on my outstretched arm bobbing their beaks into the sauce for their tasty treat.
If you ever get to the National Aviary, one of the first things you should do after saying hello to Peanut, the scarlet macaw "greeter bird" with a 31-inch tail in a cage near the aviary entrance, is look at the daily schedule to plan your day.
Each of the aviary’s three free flight areas, woodlands, tropical rainforest and wetlands, has their own daily feeding shows, and you certainly want to catch one of the upclose penguin feedings as well as the "Parrots of the Caribbean" show in the FliteZone Theater. To get everything in, good planning is a must.
From Memorial Day through Labor Day, you might also want to go up to the Skydeck on the roof to watch free-flying raptors like peregrine falcons, kites and Martial eagles do aerial gymnastics trying to catch one of the lures tossed skyward by the staff.
According to Erika Douglas, marketing associate, the National Aviary got its start 60 years ago with a tropical rainforest installation. An expansion in 2010 added the new glass-domed atrium as well as Penguin Point, a large zoo-like installation with African penguins including Sidney (for Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins), Patrick (for the hockey division they play in) and Stanley (for the coveted hockey cup).
"In 1993, Congress gave the aviary the national designation it now adds to its title," Douglas said.
The aviary currently houses over 600 birds representing 250 species from all over the globe. According to Douglas, everyone has their own favorite, but the ones that made the biggest visual impact on me were the pair of sea eagles, one of which perched on a limb close to the wall of its glass enclosure.
"The sea eagles are found in Siberia and Alaska and can weigh 10 to 15 pounds with a wing span approaching nine feet," Douglas said.
After following guide, Janet Robb, into the grasslands exhibit, I was impressed with her knowledge of things avian. She had no trouble pointing out the gorgeous golden finches or explaining that the Eastern Paradise Whydah is a parasitic nester that lays its eggs in other birds nests and lets the adoptive parents raise them. And I was amused to learn from her that the African gray parrot can mimic not only the human language but also cell phone tones, even radio static.
After watching the penguins gorge themselves on fish handed to them by their feeder in Penguin Point, I watched wetlands coordinator, Dave Miller, conduct one of the day’s most entertaining events. As visitors sat on bleacher seats, Miller passed out grubs to his audience and asked them to hold the worms between their fingers and raise their arms. It wasn’t log before birds swooped down and plucked the tasty morsels (to them) out of our fingers. The same exercise was duplicated with fish, and this time around it was the Inca terns that stole our catches.
I ended the day in the tropical rainforest where the feeding program began with hard Brazil nuts given to green-winged and hyacinth macaws while 90 other birds representing 30 species, mostly from Southeast Asia and Africa, flew freely overhead in the expansive enclosure.
One word of caution. Keep a wary eye out for Charley, a common grackle housed in the wetland enclosure. He’s known for his penchant for going through bags and purses of unsuspecting visitors and stealing things like their car keys.
If You’re Going
For more information on the National Aviary, located at 700 Arch Street on Pittsburgh’s North Side, phone 412-323-7235 or
For a place to stay, the Parador Inn, 939 Western Avenue, is a unique hostelry with a Caribbean-Victorian flair. Located within walking distance to the aviary, the Parador takes its name from the Spanish words for "to stop" or "an inn" and occupies the former 1870 Rhode mansion. Owner Ed Menzer claims the main house holds over fifty stained and leaded glass windows. Along with its Caribbean ambiance, the inn features a full American-style breakfast each morning. Phone 412-231-4800 or
For a place to dine, the Willow Restaurant, 634 Camp Horne Road in Pittsburgh, was voted "Best New Restaurant" in 2005 by readers of Pittsburgh Magazine. With a very attractive decor and sophisticated lighting, Willow changes its menu seasonally, and Chef Anthony Pupo, trained at Johnson and Wales, serves exemplary Contemporary American cuisine.
Popular dishes include the prime sirloin, crab cakes and Branzino Seabass, seared and filled with proscuitto and asiago, but I particularly enjoyed my rabbit stew appetizer and duck entree. Desserts are made in house, and the wine list is eclectic and well put together. Phone 412-847-1007 or

Parador Inn, Pittsburgh

Duck entre at Willow Restaurant