Bird House Reopens at Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute
The Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (NZCBI) invites visitors to soar into its renovated Bird House, opening Monday, March 13. The innovative exhibit explores the fascinating world of migratory songbirds, waterfowl and shorebirds native to North, Central and South American ecosystems. Migratory birds play critical roles in pest control, pollination and seed dispersal for trees and plants as well as crops. Bilingual panels—in English and Spanish—tell the story of how migratory birds connect communities and contribute to healthy ecosystems across the Americas.
As Zoo visitors “migrate” through the shores of the Delaware Bay, a lush prairie pothole and a tropical Bird Friendly coffee farm, free-flighted birds stride, paddle, tweet and fly all around them. These multi-sensory, immersive aviaries mimic natural ecosystems—places that are of critical importance to the annual life cycles of migratory birds and that boost human well-being. From this exhibit, visitors can learn seven simple actions to live bird friendly to protect native species in their own backyards. The Bird House opening celebration is made possible with the support of Boeing.
In order to manage capacity as the birds acclimate to visitors, free timed-entry passes will be required to enter the new Bird House for the first several months. Same-day passes will be available on site at the Zoo. Visitors may use their mobile device to scan a QR code located on signs throughout Zoo grounds or obtain printed passes in the Visitor Center. Smithsonian National Zoo Members will have an opportunity to preview the Bird House March 3–12.
“Now more than ever, raising awareness about the plight of migratory birds is key to their survival,” said Brandie Smith, Ph.D., John and Adrienne Mars Director, NZCBI. “As visitors walk through our spectacular aviaries and see these beautiful birds up close, I want them to appreciate the awe-inspiring journeys these animals make every year and walk away with the desire and knowledge to protect birds and their shrinking habitats.”
Upon reopening, more than 170 individual birds representing 56 species will be on view in the new Bird House and another 16 species in the surrounding outdoor exhibits on the bird plateau. In the first of three walk-through aviaries, visitors will learn about shorebird migration in the Delaware Bay. Along with birds like the red knot and ruddy turnstone, the aviary features horseshoe crabs, fish and invertebrates native to the Delaware Bay. Visitors will cross into the Prairie Pothole region of the northern Great Plains to view species of waterfowl and shorebirds—including ducks and black-necked stilts—while learning the importance of the wetlands. In the tropical Bird-Friendly Coffee Farm, visitors can see the migratory Baltimore oriole or wood thrush and a resident flock of barred parakeets. As they observe songbirds flitting among the coffee plants, visitors learn how agricultural sites can provide critical habitat for birds and other animals. The outside habitats on the plateau will feature charismatic favorites such as barred owls, standard bronze turkeys, sandhill cranes, whooping cranes and American flamingos, among others. Visitors can get to know the Bird House’s animals during daily keeper talks and animal encounters.
“Rather than wait and see what fate holds for migratory birds, our team is proactively studying their husbandry, nutritional and reproductive needs while they’re still common,” said Sara Hallager, curator of the Bird House. “Already, our team has had great success breeding several migratory species that breed in the United States, including indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks, Swainson’s thrush and wood thrush. As populations decline drastically in the wild, the possibility of bringing them into human care to save their species becomes more real. We can’t wait until numbers have dwindled to a few hundred or dozen individuals.”
The Bird House closed for renovation Jan. 2, 2017. In keeping with NZCBI’s conservation mission, the renovated exhibit was built within the walls of the Zoo’s historic 1928 Bird House. More than 80% of the existing masonry walls were retained with the intention of reducing the building’s carbon footprint. The exhibit was designed to meet the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold standards. LEED certification will take place about six months after the exhibit opens. The building’s glass contains a ceramic frit pattern of horizontal lines, making it more visible to birds in an effort to prevent window collisions. The public opening of the Bird House March 13 marks the completion of this six-year, $69 million project.
“To fully appreciate the brand new Bird House experience, visitors should grab their binoculars, take a moment to observe our birds and reflect on the wonderous cycle of bird migration,” said Scott Sillett, head of NZCBI’s Migratory Bird Center. “When we spend a relaxing day at the beach, or enjoy food and coffee that was grown on a farm, we are benefiting from the same ecosystems on which birds live and depend. I hope visitors come away with an understanding of how our actions can impact wildlife and why the decision to live bird friendly is critical to our own future and wellbeing.”
The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center is the only scientific institution solely dedicated to studying migratory birds. Its scientists study what drives bird population size and how conservationists can use these insights to stop population declines. They are at the forefront of ornithological research, innovating holistic approaches and testing the latest tracking technologies to answer complex questions about seasonal interactions, land management and behavior.
As visitors approach the Bird House, they are greeted by the Plateau Gardens, a green space abundant with native trees, bushes and flowers. The promenade serves as a model for planting bird-friendly gardens, which offer food and shelter for birds, insects and other local wildlife. Native plant species at the Plateau Gardens include downy serviceberry trees, eastern redbud trees, red-twig dogwood trees, highbush blueberry bushes and purple coneflowers, among others.
Upon entering the Bird House, visitors will observe a towering mosaic arch decorated with parrots, toucans, songbirds and other tropical species. This artwork was originally part of the 1928 front entrance to the Bird House. Designed and fabricated by local artisan John Joseph Earley, the arch is made of polychrome concrete imbedded with glass and colored marbles. Using the same methods and materials, Earley designed and fabricated the historic pillar head (capital) that is on exhibit in the Plateau Gardens. This colorful capital—which was buried on Bird House grounds and uncovered during excavation—once flanked the Bird House’s entryway.
In the Bird Observatory room, visitors can watch Migratory Bird Center science in action and see how researchers use satellite tracking to learn where birds go and how the climate, native and introduced predators, and availability of insect prey cause bird populations to grow and decline. These studies teach scientists how human development changes ecosystems over time and affects birds’ ability to survive and thrive in their native habitats. In the Observatory, Migratory Bird Center researchers will demonstrate how they use bird banding to study the wild birds that live around the Zoo at 11 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Researchers will also host guided walks at the Bird House at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. These activities are free, open to the public and will take place weather permitting.
As visitors make their way to the aviaries, they pass through the Flyway—an immersive experience where aluminum bird silhouettes are suspended from the ceiling in a murmuration formation, providing a sense of movement throughout the space. The walls of the Flyway feature larger-than-life stunning images of some of the birds visitors will meet in the aviaries, including the wood thrush, black-necked stilt, sanderling, canvasback and other native birds.
Upon exiting the aviaries, visitors can flock to the Roost store for commemorative bird-themed merchandise. The Roost offers a variety of souvenirs, from traditional toys, apparel, books and jewelry to items for living a bird-friendly life—including Bird Friendly coffee and cocoa, bird houses and feeders, binoculars, window decals and more. The Smithsonian invites bird fans to shop online for a selection of limited-edition merchandise commemorating the Bird House’s grand reopening. Products featuring animals that visitors can see in the new exhibit—including indigo buntings, American avocets, rose-breasted grosbeaks and more—will be available for purchase beginning March 13 for a limited time. Proceeds directly support the Smithsonian and NZCBI’s animal care and conservation programs.
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To download photos, b-roll and a conservation program backgrounder visit the Zoo’s newsroom.