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Sunday, May 21, 2017

A Walk Among the Wings

There were many exhibits that I enjoyed immensely during my recent visit to Zoo Miami, but Wings of Asia is the one that made the biggest impression on me.  Part of it was its size – every time I thought that the aviary was finished, I discovered an entirely new section to explore.  Part of it was its beauty, from the trickling creek to the peak of the ruined temple.  Part of it, of course, was the birds, and my pleasure at seeing so many species flying, swimming, and scurrying all about me.

And, of course, part of it was the fact that I was right there on the inside.

The walk-through aviary is not a new concept.  It dates back to antiquity, at least back to when wealthy ancient Romans would dine in their aviaries… sometimes dining on birds that had previously that day been flying in that same aviary.  Almost every zoo and aquarium I have ever been to has had a walk-through.  Many have had several.  They are perhaps one of the most common exhibit archetypes, and unlike other exhibit models – bear pits, monkey houses – they never seem to fall out of favor.

They are also one of the most difficult bird exhibits to manage.

You have all of the challenges of any mixed-species exhibit.  Will birds predate one another – either on the adults or, far more commonly, the eggs and chicks of other species?  Will birds compete with one another or view each other as rivals? Will birds steal each other’s food?  Can the enclosure be made comfortable for all species present? 

Then, in the mix you throw in the least predictable, most dangerous species on earth – humans.

The most obvious threat is the risk of birds being injured, either deliberately or accidentally, as birds wander underfoot, or trustingly land too close to an inquisitive child.  Injuries can happen even if the humans involved mean well, or wish to have no direct interaction at all.  I’ve seen overly friendly birds unexpectedly land on zoo visitors, who then proceed to thrash and flail and, in general, freak out. 

On that same note, you also have to worry about the possibility of visitors being injured by birds.   When I rounded a corner in Zoo Miami and found myself face-to-beak with a pair of Sarus cranes, no barriers in between us, I came pretty darn close to trampling my girlfriend to death making a break for the exit.  Not that those cranes had done anything slightly menacing towards me… I just don’t trust cranes.  Especially not ones bigger than me.

A lack of barriers means it’s also that much easier for visitors to feed birds, either intentionally or unintentionally through spills or drops of people food.  This in turn can lead birds to a) spend more time on the visitor path, where they can be potentially injured or b) learn to beg aggressively.  Plus, potato chips aren’t good for birds.  Heck, they aren’t that great for us, either.

Lastly, there is the risk of escape.  Aviaries have double-doors for people to enter without allowing birds to escape, but on a busy day with lots of folks coming in (especially gentlemen/ladies who were brought up to hold the door for others) there can be lots of openings for a quick-flying bird.

That’s a lot of things that could go wrong.  It’s easy to imagine a zoo director, especially one averse to lawsuits and bad press (as all of them are) saying, “Why bother?”

Elementary.  Because walk-through aviaries, especially well-crafted ones, are magic.

There really is no experience like sharing a space with a wild animal, or in this case, several wild animals.  Not knowing where the animal is likely to appear, and perhaps finding it using a combination of your senses – a rustle in the leaves overhead, a flash of color, or perhaps a fishy smell that tells you a nest in nearby (visitors are advised not to use “touch” or “taste” when appreciating aviary birds).   A walk-through aviary instills a sense of discovery among its visitors.  They don’t view the bird anymore.  They experience it. 

Another advantage is that they tend to result in larger habitats than a traditional aviary would provide.  That is because they have to accommodate the visitor walkways and buffer spaces.  Sure, they may not use these places too much when the zoo is open and visitors are present, but on slow days or after-hours, they are open.   I’ve always been daunted by the prospect of managing birds – especially smaller, flightier species like passerines and doves – in large aviaries, for fear that they’d prove too difficult to monitor, or to catch up for vet procedures, or even to make sure they are feeding.  Still, the thought of seeing them flying in such a spacious exhibit, getting plenty of exercise and lots of enrichment from a complex, spatially-varied environment, has made me feel that it must be worth the effort.

Two caveats for walk-throughs, however.  One, there must, must, MUST be sufficient places for birds to get away from visitors.  I have seen some aviaries which were basically walk-in closets.  In those cases, it would be best to have excluded the “walk-through” part.  Birds should be able to be comfortably distant from zoo guests if they choose so.  Let close-up proximity to the public be their decision, not your imposition.  Two, zoo staff must constantly monitor the birds in the aviary to identify those that are engaging in risky behaviors – risky either for themselves or for humans.  I have a bird in my collection who came to us from a walk-through at another zoo.  His keepers decided that he wasn’t working out in that type of setting when they started seeing visitors taking selfies with this (chicken-sized) bird perched on their shoulders.

In recent years, zoos and aquariums have begun to expand upon the walk-through aviary concept, adding additional species of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.  Among the species that I’ve seen sharing walk-through aviaries are squirrels, small primates, fruit bats, small antelope, sloths, and turtles and tortoises.  Many zoos in recent years have added kangaroo walk-through exhibits.  I’ve seen pictures (but not in person) of visitors walking among capybara.

I could even imagine a zoo-of-the-future consisting of a series of football-field sized enclosures, where visitors walk through first an African kopje, then an Asian rainforest, then an Australian desert, and so on.  For some species, walk-through enclosures will never be practical (looking at you, big cats and bears).  Still, I’m sure that increasingly-innovating zoos and aquariums will continue to push the envelope in creating larger, more complex habitats that allow visitors to share space with an increasingly diverse array of animals. 

Then, the magic of a walk-through aviary could be recreated on an even grander scale.

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