12 Top-Flight Public Aviaries

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Feathered Friends

Photo: _paVan_ [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

Unless you suffer from an Alfred Hitchcock-induced case of ornithophobia or lived though a traumatic childhood encounter with a gaggle of Canadian geese, there’s nothing quite like spending a few hours at an aviary.

A term used to describe sprawling avian habitats that allow for free flight, aviaries are a staple of zoos and also exist as standalone tourist attractions-cum-conservation hubs.

Generally, they serve two purposes: first and foremost, aviaries delight visitors by permitting them to come in close (sometimes very close) contact with rare, exotic, unusual-looking and vibrantly hued bird species that, in their native habitats, are threatened or critically endangered. Secondly, a majority of modern aviaries, many hosting population-boosting breeding programs, promote bird conservation efforts while educating the public about the plight our avian friends face in the wild. Some aviaries take a more specific approach to curation by focusing strictly on indigenous species; others function as open-to-the-public sanctuaries.

Other aviaries are better known as architectural landmarks than as institutions dedicated to displaying and studying birds in a naturalistic environment. Whatever the case, these well-visited facilities are not strictly for the birds.

Here’s a dozen top-flight public aviaries from around the world including aviaries located both inside and outside of zoos as well as large bird parks that are home to multiple aviaries. Bird fanciers: which ones have you chance the visit — and which ones are on your bird-spotting bucket list?

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Bird Kingdom: Niagara Falls, Ontario

Photo: michael_swan/flickr

When an attraction advertised as having the “world’s largest free-flying indoor aviary” opened in May 2003 in a tourism-dependent Canadian city already home to a '60s-era observation tower, a giant Ferris wheel, a butterfly conservatory, two indoor water parks, two casinos, no less than five wax museums and a disproportionate number of fudge emporiums, it all made sense — it made perfect sense. It felt like it belonged there, in Niagara Falls, all along.

At 45,000 square feet, Bird Kingdom’s main multi-level indoor “rainforest” aviary still enjoys its largest-in-the-world status today. A true feast for the eyes, the balmy enclosure is home to roughly 400 feathered residents spanning 80 species that could never, ever be accused of lacking color: peach-faced lovebirds, blue and gold macaws, yellow-headed Amazons, green-cheeked conures, blue-crowned pigeons, red-crested turacos, scarlet ibises, green aracaris and rainbow lorikeets from Australia to name just a few.

It’s worth noting that Bird Kingdom isn’t strictly an avian-only affair. The facility is also home to a range of (mercifully) flightless creatures including bearded dragons, Burmese pythons, rose hair tarantulas, boa constrictors and three-toed salamanders.

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Birds of Eden: Plettenberg Bay, South Africa

Photo: Kent Wang/flickr

Never mind the “South Africa’s version of Fort Lauderdale” comparisons. The domestically popular Western Cape resort town of Plettenbergy Bay has more to offer than manicured golf courses and overcrowded stretches of pristine white sand. This is where South Africans come to commune — and get really up close and personal — with Mother Nature.

Whale- and dolpin-watching tours, hikes along the popular Otter Trail and excursions into the stunning, World Heritage-listed Robberg Nature Reserve are the de rigueur eco-tourism diversions for most visitors. And while decidedly touristier, a conservation-minded trio of local attractions operated by the South African Animal Sanctuary Alliance (SAASA) that include the Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary, Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary (gibbons and lemurs and capuchins, oh my!) and Birds of Eden are all not to be missed.

Billed as the largest single-span free-flight aviary in the world, Birds of Eden is housed within an 8-acre mesh dome (“basically the world’s largest bird cage” per the park’s website) that spans a swath of indigenous forest where, in just a single afternoon, one might encounter everything from an African grey parrot to a zebra finch from Australia. In total, it's home to 3,500 resident birds spanning over 200 species.

With its emphasis on injured African birds and exotic rescues that had been previously kept as caged pets or displayed in zoos in more confining enclosures, Birds of Eden stresses rehabilitation before everything else. In fact, Birds of Eden’s doors are always open to pet owners, who for one reason or another, are unable or unwilling to care for their pet birds and need to surrender them to a sanctuary where, after a brief quarantine period, they’ll go on to live out the rest of their lives flying freely.

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Bloedel Floral Conservatory: Vancouver, British Columbia

Photo: Karen Neoh/flickr

A two-in-one botanical conservatory-aviary perched high atop Queen Elizabeth Park, the Bloedel Floral Conservatory is one of Vancouver’s most distinctive structures — and, not to mention, a fabulous place to spend an afternoon admiring over 500 varieties of exotic plants as a couple hundred or so brightly colored birds roam freely about.

Often mistaken as a geodesic dome a la Epcot’s Spaceship Earth or the Montreal Biosphere, Bloedel Floral Conservatory, opened to the public in 1969 as Canada’s largest single-structure conservatory, is technically a triodetic dome composed of 1,490 acrylic bubbles in 32 different sizes. (The original panels were replaced in 2014 as part of a massive, multi-million-dollar roof repair undertaking.) Not surprisingly, the structure’s aggressively space-age-y appearance has landed it cameo appearances in more than a couple of sci-fi franchises.

As for the newly revamped dome’s resident birds, they include a variety of colorful — and frequently chatty — species including Chinese pheasants, African parrots, hyacinth macaws and a citron-crested cockatoo named Gidget.

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Edward Youde Aviary: Hong Kong

Photo: Ed Coyle/flickr

While not the largest aviary to appear on this list, Hong Kong’s Edward Youde Aviary is by far one of the most spectacularly sited. Spanning roughly 32,000 square feet, the arch-supported, mesh-enclosed facility encompasses a lushly vegetated natural valley situated at the bottom of the northeastern slope of Victoria Peak. As Lonely Planet puts it, it’s “nothing like a conventional aviary and more like a bit of rainforest planted in the middle of the city.”

Located within Hong Kong Park just down the way from the famed Forsgate Conservatory, this aviary-cum-urban oasis, open to the public since 1992, is home to roughly 600 birds of 70 different species. Included in the collection are numerous threatened and endangered species with an emphasis on chatty birds indigenous to the rainforests of Southeast Asia such as Bali starlings, yellow-crowned bulbuls and white-rumped shamas.

Given that the aviary is uniquely positioned within a natural environment, the facility’s network of wooden walkways have been elevated above the valley floor. In addition to not disturbing existing streambeds, this allows visitors to saunter through the rainforest canopy — dominant trees include fig, kapok and candlenut — at varying heights for superior bird-viewing opportunities.

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Jurong Bird Park: Singapore

Photo: Jan /Wikimedia Commons

Spread out across nearly 50 acres and boasting an impressive collection that includes upwards of 5,000 birds spanning 400 individual species, Jurong Bird Park —“Where Colour Lives” — is about as close to an avian theme park as you can get.

Open to the public since 1971 and currently operated by Wildlife Reserves Singapore, the sprawling property is organized into 20 distinct, self-explanatory exhibit zones including Flamingo Pool, Pelican Cove, Swan Lake, Penguin Cove, Parrot Paradise and Lory Loft, an Australian Outback-themed aviary filled with hundreds of colorful — and disarmingly forthcoming — lories and lorikeets that famously have zero qualms with landing on the shoulders (and eating from the hands) of visiting humans.

The famed Waterfall Aviary, a 13-story high aviary complete with suspension bridge, 98-foot-tall artificial cataract (one of the world’s mightiest man-made waterfalls) and over 600 free-flying tropical birds, serves as the conservation-minded park’s dazzlingly immersive centerpiece.

This all said, there’s truly something for everyone at the award-winning Jurong Bird Park. However, those suffering from ornithophobia — particularly ornithophobia centered around birds that are large, fast, flightless and frequently ferocious — will likely want to take a hard pass on Dinosaur Descendants, an exhibit that’s home to the emu, ostrich and the fascinating yet ultimately nightmare-inducing double-wattled cassowary. Viewing a laid-back painting session with Pikasso, the park’s artistically inclined sulphur-crested cockatoo, seems like a good alternate activity in this instance.

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Kuala Lumpur Bird Park: Malaysia

Photo: Phalinn Ooi/flickr

Right after they’ve taken the time to familiarize themselves with the extensive — but mostly practical — rules that must be observed at all times (no feather-plucking, flower-picking, fire-starting, etc.) at Kuala Lumpur Bird Park, visitors will likely be quickly overwhelmed by the sheer number of birds (in the ballpark of 3,000 spread out across 200 species) flying freely at this Malaysian tourist magnet.

Billing itself as the “world’s largest free-flight walk-in aviary,” Kuala Lumpur Bird Park is indeed impressively sized at just under 21 acres spread located adjacent to Kuala Lumpur’s Lake Gardens. (And just down the way from the Kuala Lumpur butterfly park). Hornbills, which have their own special “zone” within the park are a top draw as are the flamingos, milky storks, strutting peacocks and brainy African grey parrots, which are just one of several species that participate in special breeding programs sponsored by the park.

Offering a “rustic Malay gastronomic experience” while taking full advantage of the park’s lush, rainforest-esque trappings, the on-site restaurant appears to be quite the uniquely popular dining spot with locals and tourists alike although some might consider chef picks like “chicken chop with black pepper sauce” to be a touch insensitive.

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Living Coasts: Torquay, Devon, England

Photo: GinaFranchi /Wikimedia Commons

Best known for clotted cream and its “The Hound of the Baskervilles” associations, Devon, in Southwest England, is likely the only place in the world (aside from Southern Africa) that you can witness a couple dozen inquisitive, free-roaming African penguins cross the road.

Okay, so maybe it’s more of a path than a road. But still, it’s remarkable to witness these endangered aquatic birds waddle freely out and about within the confines of Living Coasts, a coastal zoo located in the leisure-centric seaside village of Torquay. Owned and operated by the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust, the main attraction of Living Coasts, in addition to its resident African (and Macaroni) penguins, is a massive marine aviary topped with a 59,000 square foot net that’s home to over 300 seabirds that don’t waddle but fly (and frequently swim). Tufted puffins, guillemots and Inca terns are just a few of the species flying, diving, swooping, sailing and swimming freely within the award-winning 62-foot-high habitat.

And if seabirds aren’t your thing, there’s another specialized and open-to-the-public animal charity located just an hour up the Devon coast along the so-called English Rivera: the world-famous Donkey Sanctuary. Funny enough, African Penguins, not too long ago, were referred to as jackass penguins due to their distinctively donkey-esque vocalizations. Perhaps Devon’s tourism board should consider adding “Coastal Devon: A County Where You Can Hear Braying Animals” to its roster of slogans.

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National Aviary: Pittsburgh

Photo: Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch/Wikimedia Commons

Although their core focus areas differ, public aviaries and botanical observatories frequently complement (and overlap with) each other — just think of them as two conservation- and education-minded proverbial peas in a pod that often showcase the ages-old mutualistic relationship between birds and flowers.

No other city quite caters to horticulture heads and bird lovers quite like Pittsburgh, home to the internationally renowned Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden and, just across town, the National Aviary, the only independent nonprofit public indoor aviary in the United States. Billing itself as the “Nation’s Premier Bird Zoo” and boasting three major free-flight exhibit areas, the facility was known as the Pittsburgh Aviary from its founding in 1952 up until 1993 when Congress introduced a bill, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, to grant it with honorary “National” status.

Located within historic West Park on Pittsburgh’s North Side, the National Aviary has a lot going on. Over 500 birds hailing from every continent — sans Antarctica — are present and accounted for with the aviary’s official species list ranging from the African grey parrot to the yellow-naped Amazon. Particularly popular are the ultra-chatty macaws, orange-eyed Eurasian eagle-owls, crowd-pleasing African penguins and a quartet of Andean condors, a scavenger most known for its massive size and significance in South American folklore and mythology.

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Snowdon Aviary: London

Photo: heena_mistry/Wikimedia Commons

While not the biggest or most significant aviary to appear on this list, the Snowdon Aviary at the London Zoo is an architectural landmark in a city with an ever-changing skyline choke-full of iconic historic structures, playful skyscrapers and futuristic — sometimes downright weird — 21st-century edifices. It takes a lot to stick out from the crowd.

Conceived and designed by architect Cedric Price, structural engineer Frank Newby and namesake patron Lord Snowdon (aka Anthony Armstrong-Jones, the recently deceased husband of Princess Margaret), the Snowdon Aviary, described as the “first walk-through aviary in existence,” has been sticking out from the crowd since its completion in 1964. Writes the London Zoo: “The aviary looks almost weightless — like a bird. Its frame was pioneering in that it made use of aluminium, and in that it was an example of a kind of engineering that uses tension to support its structure. A giant net ‘skin’ is wrapped around a skeleton of poles — paired diagonal ‘sheer legs’ at either end, each lined to a three-sided pyramid or 'tetrahedron' — which is held in position only by cables.”

Currently home to peacocks, egrets and two kinds of ibis, the days that this “pioneering model of British architecture” will continue to serve as a functional aviary are, alas, limited. In November 2016, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) announced Sir Norman Foster’s eponymous architecture firm had been selected to oversee a £7.1 million ($8.7 million) restoration/redevelopment project that will see the aviary transformed into an innovative new walk-through habitat for the zoo’s colobus monkeys. Noting that the zoo has a “long history of leading the way in architecture and design and has many listed buildings that have stood the test of time,” ZSL director David Field goes on to call the aviary revamp the institution’s most “ambitious project to date.”

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Tracy Aviary: Salt Lake City

Photo: jimmy thomas/flickr

True, Salt Lake City doesn’t exactly scream “exotic bird species.” But it’s here, in a sprawling holy city and state capital perched within America’s Great Basin, that you’ll find Guam kingfishers, Chilean flamingos, African southern ground hornbills, New Zealand keas and friendly South American sun parakeets that’ll eat right out of your outstretched hand.

The venue, of course, is an aviary — the Tracy Aviary, a nearly 80-year-old institution located in Salt Lake City’s Liberty Park that describes itself as “America’s oldest and largest bird park” and one of two “true” aviaries in the U.S. (The other being Pittsburgh’s National Aviary.) Founded to house the prized private collection of feathered beasts belonging to local banker and uber-bird fancier Russell Lord Tracy, the 7.5-acre aviary, has now expanded to include rough 400 birds spanning 135 species.

Like the National Aviary, the Tracy Aviary boasts a robust breeding program and an array of birds that are threatened, endangered or even extinct in their native habitats. There’s also a slew of crowd-drawing exotic bird “personalities” like Grunt, the king vulture; Ican, a red-billed toucan; Sydney, the emu; and, last but not least, Andy, the aviary’s beloved 58-year-old Andean condor. Still, the aviary makes room for creatures a little more familiar including gadwall ducks, turkey vultures, trumpeter swans, mourning doves, screech owls, red-tail hawks, mud hens and American white pelicans, which are famed for breeding in great numbers on an island situated on the northern end of Utah’s Great Salt Lake.

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Weltvogelpark Walsrode: Walsrode, Germany

Photo: Papooga/flickr

Northwest Germany’s sprawling heathland may seem an unusual locale for the world’s largest bird park by size (59 acres) and species number (over 675, with every continent represented). But there it is, the world-famous Weltvogelpark Walsrode.

A major tourist attraction in Lower Saxony that’s just a quick day trip from Hanover, Weltvogelpark Walsrode — or, simply, World Bird Park — was founded in 1962 as a modest private hobby-enterprise and has expanded over the years to include several impressive aviaries, enclosures and bird halls that accommodate a current total of over 4,000 individual birds including rare writhed hornbills, majestic Andean condors, fearsome southern cassowaries (no thank you, hummingbirds by the hundreds and, of course, the park’s emblematic toco toucan. The park is also home to harpy eagles but, rest assured, adorable baby sloths aren’t on the menu here for these ferociously powerful apex predators as they are in the wild.

Although its primary focus is on serious species conservation, Weltvogelpark Walsrode is also heavy on the education-based entertainment factor with daily flight shows, interactive bird feedings, macaw meet-and-greets and an “Owl Castle” playground. Weltvogelpark Walsrode is also home to a sizable, rhododendron- and tulip-stuffed botanical garden — an attraction within itself, really — that pulls in horticulture enthusiasts from across Germany and beyond by the busload each spring and summer.

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World’s Fair Flight Cage: St. Louis

Photo: Robert Lawton/Wikimedia Commons

Aviaries are, more often than not, beloved fixtures at zoos — bird lovers, without fail, always make a beeline for ‘em. The San Diego Zoo, the Bronx Zoo, Zoo Miami and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium are among the American zoos with impressive aviaries although none are quite as impressive, at least in a historical context, as the St. Louis Zoo’s 1904 Flight Cage.

The Flight Cage was commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, with plans to dismantle and relocate it to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. following the conclusion of the fair. Obviously, that never happened thanks a hard-fought battle lead by St. Louis residents who eventually purchased the Flight Cage from the Smithsonian for $3,500 (birds not included). The Flight Cage, then the world’s largest walk-through free-flight aviary, was the first — and main — attraction at the St. Louis Zoo when it opened its doors as the world’s first municipally supported zoological garden.

Over a century later, the old mesh-and-steel Flight Cage is still up there in terms of overall size and, alongside the St. Louis Art Museum, is the one of only a small handful of structures remaining from the 1904 World’s Fair. A bona fide relic, the Flight Cage has undergone three major revamps over the years. Today, the aviary faithfully recreates the cypress swamps found along the Mississippi River. In turn, the 20-some species of birds housed within this immersive wetland habitat are exclusively North American — the very same species that thrive along the Mississippi including snowy egrets, double-crested cormorants, a variety of ducks and the deceptive flamingo lookalike known as the roseate spoonbill.