My trip to Pittsburgh was not all (non-avian) dinosaurs and Mike Habib was good enough to indulge my love of all things zoological with trips to the Pittsburgh and the U.S. National Aviary. Both were excellent days out and I got to see a bunch of new species and, always nice for me, interesting and well-designed set-ups and enclosures.
The Aviary first, and it’s an interesting and unusual place. It’s quite small (an afternoon is more than enough time) and is centred around several large walk-through rooms with dozens of species in each in the air and on the ground around you. I love these things, especially when, as here, the birds are really quite habituated to the people and are happy for you to get in close. Seeing small passerines from a distance of inches rather than feet or yards and with no glass or wire in the way is a joy. When things are done well (as here) the birds have lots of space and can travel huge distances without coming near people if they choose, or hide away in the trees and cover, but the bold can come out and get up close. I got a great many lovely shots of all manner of species (many of which were new to me) and just having things that close and available was superb.
In addition to the walk-throughs, there were a few enclosures for less-sociable (like the eagles) or more-specialised birds needing specific conditions (some of the smaller ground birds and, of course, the penguins). The aviary also does lots of rescue work and conservation, so there were breeding programs ongoing as well as things like an eagle who couldn’t fly and a pelican who looked like he’d been copying at least one pterosaur.
We also took in one of their ‘free flight’ shows with various birds flying over the audience. I was rather ambivalent towards it. On the one hand, training intelligent birds like parrots will keep them more interested and healthy, but on the other the show was (to my European sensibilities at least) all a bit tacky and tasteless, and the message they were well-meaningly trying to drive home (birds are good, conservation is important) was a bit drowned out by the music and lights. Most annoyingly of all the show wasn’t cheap for the 10 minutes it lasted – would it really have hurt to let the birds fly around a bit more?
All in all though, it was a great trip. I saw some lovely birds with real rarities and new species for me like golden plover, hammerkop, oropendulas, a new touraco, sun bitterns, dwarf bustards, Gouldian finches, Incan turns, and best of all, widowbirds. Well worth a few hours of anyone’s time.