Joanne, the National Aviary, and Conservation

My journey into conservation started at an early age, before the age of 12.  This is the earliest I remember being environmentally aware and interested in learning more about our impact on our plant, as well as learning ways we can mitigate the harm we have on this blue marble.  At this stage of my young life, this desire led me to the only place that really mattered to me: the National Aviary in Pittsburgh’s Northside. 

Before getting into my own experiences at the Aviary, let me introduce some of the important work that they do.  The National Aviary has its name as an honorary title given to it by the U.S. Congress.  It is the only non-profit independent indoor aviary in the United States, as well as its largest aviary.  The National Aviary has several missions that it undertakes to serve the animal kingdom.  One of its longest running missions is to protecting biodiversity by ensuring healthy populations of endangered species.  This also includes making sure they have mating pairs of animals to ensure genetic diversity.  Despite what its name suggests, birds are not the only animals that they do this for; they have opened their doors to two-toed sloths and six years ago, they introduced the community to a potential partner to their female two-toed sloth.

Arguably, a more important project than protecting genetic diversity for endangered species is the education work the National Aviary provides.  Year round, the National Aviary provides guided tours of the zoo, educating adoring adults and children alike with all ways we can protect these colorful animals.  Additionally, they have staff in most exhibits that provide answers to any questions that visitors might have.  They also have seasonal educational programs, such as providing education about migrating birds which includes, but are not limited to, suggesting turning off lights at night to facilitate traditional migratory patterns as these lights can disorient birds and send them off course during their journey.

In the last two years, the National Aviary built an addition on to their building.  While developing this project, they wanted to make sure they had low environmental impact over the life of the building.  This meant installing bird-friendly glass and energy efficient glass when constructing the large glass exterior walls.  The design and use of construction material earned the National Aviary an award from Environmental + Energy Leader Award program called Top Project of the Year Award. 

As for my experience at the National Aviary, it always started early in the morning, hours before the facilities would open to the public.  There was a magic to being alone in the open exhibits and seeing the birds when no one else was around.  The tradeoff of this was being responsible for prepping the birds’ food.  What this entailed was cutting up a lot of fruit and putting insects into bowl.  The meat for the birds was frozen, and this is where I learned that I had a fear of walk-in freezers.  After the first time, I never went in again without propping the door open with my shoe.  The freezer was my least favorite aspect of the job, and this included cutting up fully grown frozen rats for the birds of prey.

Joanne made an impression on me that has lasted a lifetime.  Joanne is a Wattled Curassow; who’s name does not do her large personality justice.  She was the bane of my existence.  I could not walk into her enclosure without her stalking me, she had this uncanny ability to know when I came in.  Joanne prided herself on slapping me around with her large black wing, and was only satisfied when she chased me from the room.  Around 20 years later, when I returned to the aviary, I saw a Wattled Curassow walking around and I asked how old she was.  I felt silly asking the question because I wanted it to be the same bird of my youth.  How could a bird be that old?  It turned out she was around 30 years old and has been in the aviary all her life, making her the same Curassow who made it her mission to harass me.  As it turned out, she did the same thing to most of the volunteers but never the staff.  It has something to do with the tan pants of the uniform.  Learning that almost disappointed me, I lived most of my life thinking that Joanne had it out for me, but really, she just wanted to haze the volunteers. 

This is the lasting impact of institutions like the National Aviary and the education and experiences that they provide the public.  The opportunities the National Aviary provides makes this type of experience possible and the impact on the environment extends past their mission.  It makes conservation and the environment personal and an impact that lasts a lifetime.