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How Are Visitors — And Birds — Reacting To The National Aviary’s New Wetlands Exhibit?


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Four months after the National Aviary opened its $3 million renovated Wetlands exhibit, the space is getting high marks — not only from visitors, but also from the birds.

“It was really nice to see just how well it was received by the animals. There seemed like an inherent peacefulness to them and they really embraced the space,” says Conor McGarvey, the aviary’s director of facility development and operations.

The renovated exhibit, which opened in October, features 20,000 square feet of bird-friendly glass, a 20-foot custom and immersive coastal tree, new plant and bird species and numerous mechanical upgrades. The Wetlands, originally constructed in 1969, is the largest habitat within the aviary.

The space keeps a warm and humid greenhouse environment year-round for the 80 species of coastal birds that call the Wetlands home.

One of the most notable improvements is the new bird-safe glass that encompasses the habitat. The glass is glazed with frosted and grass patterns. McGarvey, says it helps birds detect the glass and minimize collisions.

“That bird-safe glass serves two purposes,” he says. “It’s not just to protect the birds on the inside of the habitat, but also birds on the outside of the habitat that are maybe native to Western Pennsylvania. It eliminates the possibility of collisions on the inside or the outside.”

While the aviary was not experiencing bird strikes with the previous glass, Molly Toth, the Aviary’s communications and content manager, said it was showing its age.

“As we make updates to our historic habitats it’s important to us as an organization concerned about conservation that we incorporate bird-safe glass as a standard design feature,” she says in an email.

McGarvey also says that the chosen grass pattern helps contribute to creating a natural coastal environment.

“The pattern we chose ties in really well for the theme of the space,” he says. “It really emulates grasses that you would see in wetlands or coastal areas.”

Toth says the habitat is designed with each individual bird’s needs in mind. The 18,000-gallon pond is ideal for short or wading birds and as part of renovations, the pond got an upgraded filtration system.

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“There’s a pond there so we have herons, we have flamingos and there are plenty of spots for nesting. It really is designed to encourage birds’ natural behaviors like porting, nesting or raising young,” Toth says.

The custom, man-made coastal tree is another addition that aims to emulate a wild habitat and invite natural behaviors.

“It’s really neat the way that it’s designed and constructed in that there’s this root system that stretches out and intertwines into the sand or beach and into the walkway to create benches, so guests can sit and enjoy the habitat with the birds right above head,” McGarvey says. “The tree itself is over 20 feet tall with limbs that stretch out in every direction so it acts as perching for the birds.”

One hundred and fifty birds call this space their home, and it was a priority to keep them as comfortable as possible during the transition. Birds were housed in other habitats, behind the scenes in the aviary or passed along to other programs, zoos and aquariums during renovations. McGarvey says the project was well-planned and there were surprisingly no delays in obtaining materials.

Keeping the upgrades energy-efficient and sustainable was another important aspect during renovations. “We had some mechanical upgrades and replacements that have significant energy efficiency,” McGarvey says. “Conservation and sustainability is something that is really, really important to us so we kept that in mind when specifying products; everything from coatings, paints and adhesives.”

McGarvey was pleased to see the project successfully come to fruition after being so involved in its progress.

“As project manager, I was immersed in it on a day-to-day basis and I wasn’t able to get an appreciation for the impact and the gravity of the renovation until it was finally opened,” McGarvey says.

“It was gratifying for me to hear everyone from 2- and 4-year-old kids to adults say how impressive the renovation was. It’s much brighter and more welcoming,”

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