Strictly speaking, it’s slightly misleading to call Sylvan Heights a “Bird Park.” Sure, it has a ton of birds on display and, with the exception of a few dart frogs, only displays birds. That being said, the collection isn’t what you would call a representative sampling of the world’s birdlife. Many of the most popular zoo bird species – such as penguins and storks – are absent, while other popular groups – raptors, parrots, ratites, etc – are scarce. There are a few game-birds, a few cranes, some flamingos (three species, more than I think I’ve seen at any zoo), but overall not a ton of variety.
That being said, if you’ve ever wanted to see what it looks like when as many duck, goose, and swan species as possible are assembled in one collection, this is the place for you. To be fair, the name used to be "Sylvan Heights Waterfowl Park."
As it happens, that was kind of what I was looking for when I visited Sylvan – observing and photographing birds that I was unlikely to see anywhere else – so I had a great time. The vast majority of the species are kept in a series of free-flight aviaries, each arranged by continent: North America, South America, Eurasia, Africa, and Australia. Each aviary contains several species flying, swimming, diving, and waddling about, sometimes crossing the trail right in front of you or perching on railings just inches away. Over one hundred waterfowl species are maintained here, including all of the swans and all of the whistling ducks. As near as I can tell, the only species not seen here are those that a) no one on earth has in captivity or b) arctic species that can’t handle the North Carolina weather.
Every aviary becomes a sort of scavenger hunt; challenge yourself by getting a laminated species guide at the front gift shop and seeing which birds you can find. I’ve heard many a smart-ass mammal keeper say that they think all ducks look alike. One stroll through Sylvan should show them the error of their ways. You can see beautifully colored Baikal teals, red-breasted geese, and mandarin ducks. You can contrast the pink-eared duck, with its bizarre flapped bill with the prehistoric looking magpie goose, a species so unusual that it’s been banished to its own family. A handful of species are found in separate exhibits. Nene, also called Hawaiian geese, stalk along a rocky hillside enclosure, while highly endangered white-winged wood ducks occupy their own pool.
Sylvan Heights only opened up the public relatively recently; prior to that, it was the breeding center of Mike Lubbock, one of the world’s most successful aviculturalists and the man responsible for the first captive breedings of over a dozen waterfowl species. Lubbock still leads the facility, which also includes extensive off-exhibit breeding pens. Birds produced there find their way into the collections of zoos and aquariums, stocking their aviaries and pools. It remains to be seen how Sylvan Heights will develop as a public attraction, but if it’s newest exhibit – a walk-through budgie feeding aviary where friendly flamingos greet visitors – is any indication, it will be a tremendous success.
They might even branch out from ducks a bit…