National Aviary features magnificent creatures

The below review was originally published in the April 4 issue of the Setonian. Check out their website for more news!

Have you ever pet a penguin? What about an owl? A flamingo? Sure, anyone who visits the Pittsburgh Zoo can get close enough to touch them, but there’s still glass to separate onlookers from the wild animals. At the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, visitors can do so much more.

There, visitors can pay an extra fee to attend a variety of “connections.” From Penguin and Flamingo Connections to Raptor Experiences, the Aviary offers an up-close and personal experience with some of Mother Nature’s most majestic creatures.

Quite possibly the best part of the aviary, aside from the lories, of course, is the Penguin Connection.

For half an hour, eight visitors get to interact in close quarters with a penguin. In my particular experience, we met with Simon, an 8-year-old African penguin who lives at the aviary with his sister, Patrick. If you’re lucky, the penguin will emit a low growl that resembles the sound a donkey makes, but don’t worry, it’s a compliment!

During the half-hour with Simon, our guide iterated a number of facts about African penguins as well as allowing each member of the group to not only pet Simon but also pose for pictures with him.

She explained that the African penguin is on the endangered species list because humans have encroached on the natural habitats of these beautiful creatures and also informed her audience that penguins have between 70-90 feathers per square inch of their bodies. Their undercoat is a thick layer of down while the top coat is as smooth to the touch as silk.

At one point, Simon even made a daring escape attempt by slipping under the privacy panel in the lobby of the National Aviary. Don’t worry, though: Simon’s trainer was able to catch up to him quickly enough to prevent complete mayhem.

Overall, Simon had a wonderful temperament and was an instant crowd pleaser. After the Penguin Connection, visitors were encouraged to hang out around penguin point to witness the penguin feeding. During this time, about 10 penguins and two African ducks.

Aside from these premium encounters, the Aviary has a total of eight fascinating exhibits with potential interactions at nearly all of them.

The exhibits and off-scene communities house over 600 birds, ranging from commonly known ones, such as the American flamingo, bald and golden eagle, blue jay and hooded vulture to the little known and obscure, such as the waldrapp ibis, wompoo fruit dove, fire-tufted barbet and blue-faced honeyeater.

The Aviary even has a two-toed sloth—“Wookiee.” According to the website, this guy is the first mammal to ever call the National Aviary home. Because his physical structure is designed for life among the trees, he fits in easily among his feathered friends.

Despite the opportunity to view all of these spectacular aves, the truly remarkable experiences involve actually spending one-on-one time with them. For a few dollars, visitors can feed a small cup of nectar to the colony of lorikeets (they resemble miniature parrots).

Assuming the lories aren’t preoccupied with their surroundings, they might grace you with their presence by resting on your hands to drink the nectar in the cup. And if you’re really lucky, they’ll even poop on you. Yes, I said lucky. Those fortunate enough to not dodge the bullet will receive a bonus pin with a photo of a lorie on it which reads, “I got it here at the aviary.”

Wings and SkyDeck are special presentations in which visitors are permitted to observe and learn additional facts about some of the larger birds within the Aviary. During the Wings presentation, the trainers released three parrots, a couple vultures, a snowy owl (like Hedwig for all you “Harry Potter” fans), a couple seagulls and a bald eagle.

During each birds’ visit, the audience had opportunities to interact with the animals. The seagulls snatched food from sticks held high in the air by spectators and the hawk perched on top of a pretend cactus held up by a member of the audience.

The only negative part of this experience overall was the prohibition of photography. Because these animals are easily startled, we were not permitted to even snap photos with our cell phones whereas every other encounter, including the lories and the Penguin Connection, could be documented with photos.

The Pittsburgh National Aviary is open Sunday through Saturday from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. General admission starts as low as $13 per person; however, to get the full experience, attendees should purchase the all day pass, which entitles them to both the Wings and SkyDeck presentations as well as one pass to feed the Lories and experience a connection with the species of their choice.

Those interested in penguin, owl and flamingo connections or the Raptor Experience are encouraged to make reservations a few weeks in advance, as these only permit around 8-10 people in the audience. Alone, the connections run around $30, and the raptor experience is $100, but each of these encounters are well worth it.

The National Aviary is the perfect destination for a day-trip into Pittsburgh. Although the Aviary is open for six hours, visitors can easily see all there is to see in just four hours. As long as you arrive by 1 p.m., you’ll have the opportunity to participate in an encounter, feed the lories and even watch the Wings presentation.

The Aviary is fun for all audiences—I visited for my first time ever and possibly had more fun than some of the kids running around chasing peacocks. Don’t delay your visit to the Aviary—your feathered friends, and Wookiee the Sloth are waiting!

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