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North Hills Monthly

National Aviary Spreading its Wings

Sep 01, 2017 08:33AM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

Visitors experiencing a flamingo encounter

A little birdie told us that the National Aviary is a happening place, and if you haven’t been there in a while, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the changes, which include an expanded footprint and more programming than ever before. Executive Director Cheryl Tracy spoke to North Hills Monthly about the exciting ways that the National Aviary is spreading its wings.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): How long has the Aviary been in existence?

Cheryl Tracy (Tracy): The Aviary has been in existence since 1952; it was opened as a conservatory, had live plants and birds, and it was free to the public. It was city-owned property, and the city funded it. In 1991, it was privatized, as were the zoo and Phipps.

NHM: What is the significance of the word “national” in the name?

Tracy: We are the only indoor AZA (Association of Zoos & Aquariums) accredited institution dedicated to birds. In 1993, President Clinton signed a bill that made us the National Aviary. We are national in designation only; we do not receive federal funding.

NHM: What is your mission?

Tracy: Our mission is to inspire respect for nature through an appreciation of birds. We look at ourselves as a connector, connecting people to nature. Last year, which was a record year for us, we had roughly 180,000 visitors.

NHM: What sets the Aviary apart from other bird zoos in the country?

Tracy: There are other aviaries around the county, and a lot of zoos do have aviaries within them. But I would call us unique because we are all about interactivity. We offer opportunities throughout the day to get up-close with birds—to feed some of them, to engage with them and their natural behaviors, indoors or outdoors, and to have private encounters. It is a personal component to what we offer and is our way of helping people to form that emotional connection.

NHM: How many birds call the Aviary home?

Tracy: We have 500 birds, and they represent about 150 different species from all over the world. Over 20 percent of our species are endangered or threatened. Some, like the Guam kingfisher, are even extinct in the wild. We participate in a species survival plan—a concerted breeding effort to help save species from extinction. We have two pair and we hatched five chicks from those four birds just recently.

The Guam rail is also extinct in the wild, and we are leading efforts to reintroduce them back into wild.

NHM: What are some of the most popular birds with visitors?

Tracy: For sure, our African penguins are one of the most popular. We have a colony of 20. Penguin Point, the exhibit in which they live, was built to replicate their natural environment, so they have caves, rocks and a nice pool. Kids and adults can crawl through a tunnel and pop up into the penguins’ habitat and be in the same space as the birds.

The exhibit helps us to raise awareness that African penguins are critically endangered. They are part of our species survival plan, and we have hatched six chicks as part of our breeding program.

Another big attraction is our sloth. We have two sloths, and people seem to be in love with them. Valentino participates in private encounters and is a great education ambassador.

NHM: How has the Aviary changed in recent years?

Tracy: In 2010, we underwent a $17 million expansion that doubled our footprint. The basis for expansion was to be able to provide up-close experiences, to continue to allow birds to fly freely, and to be able to accommodate large groups of people. One of the main goals was to be able to host education classes, and we now host 200 school groups a year at the Aviary.

One of the biggest parts of the expansion was the Helen M. Schmidt FliteZone™ Theater, to emphasize interactivity, and infused in its programs are conservation messages for people of all ages. We also added a café, Penguin Point, and the Grasslands free-flight exhibit.

NHM: You also do a number of different shows, don’t you?

Tracy: Another component of our expansion was a rooftop theater where we do a show in the summer called SOAR. We have large birds of prey that fly outdoors; what people get to witness is something you can’t see anywhere—birds catching prey at speeds of 70 mph or more.

Our indoor show runs all year with a variety of different species performing natural behaviors but also teaching important conservation messages and creating an environment that encourages people to feel a connection to birds.

Our newest addition, Birdly, is a full-body flight simulator using virtual reality. The National Aviary is currently one of only two places in the country where you can experience what it’s like to fly like a bird.

NHM: What are some ways that the public can interact with the birds?

Tracy: Every half-hour there is something going on, such as scheduled public feedings. People can also book a private penguin encounter or feeding, or a private flamingo or sloth encounter. 

What is really unique about us is that we have an avian center window, and a lot of our eggs hatch in that window; recently, visitors got to watch the flamingos hatch. Up to 100 chicks hatch at the Aviary every year; we frequently offer ways for the public to have personal interaction with the chicks as a way to help with chicks’ development and to provide enrichment.

NHM: What might the public be surprised to learn about the National Aviary?

Tracy: They might be surprised to learn that we play a direct and indirect role in helping to save species from extinction. I think that our breeding program is one of the most important things that we are doing, and one of the things that isn’t necessarily immediately recognized.

People also may not realize what we’re doing behind the scenes for veterinary medicine and how we are advancing avian medicine globally, helping other zoos with protocols developed here. We also have a field research department—we work directly in the field, studying water quality on birds as well as the birds we have here at the aviary.

Our educational programs and our conservation message are geared toward all ages and all audiences. We have activities for everyone and private encounters—or you can just birdwatch.

Learn more about the National Aviary at