Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



History of the Bird House

Bird aviaries and waterfowl ponds have long been a part of the Smithsonian's National Zoo. The first aviary or "flying cage" at the Zoo was constructed in 1901 and was located nearly underneath where the new Asia Trail bridge spans today. It was a dome-shaped structure 158 feet long by 50 feet wide by 50 feet tall, and was one of two commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution. The original at the Zoo was demolished in 1975.

The second cage was sent to St. Louis for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition and World's Fair. The site of this World's Fair was incorporated into the St. Louis Zoo. The second cage was recently renovated and serves today as an exhibit for North American birds of the Mississippi River cypress swamps.

An eagle cage was incorporated into the hillside (along the western side of the proposed site) in 1932. This cage was demolished in fall 2004 as a part of the cleanup effort after the wetlands boardwalk fire. Remnants of a man-made rock cliff remain on site near the footprint of the Eagle Cage.

Construction of the Bird House began in spring 1927 and was completed and opened in the summer of 1928, with exterior work and outdoor cages completed in 1929. The final third of the building was added in the late 1930s.

Construction began on the Great Flight Cage in 1963 and it opened to the public in 1965. It received an award for excellence in design by the American Iron and Steel Institute.

Development of aviaries and water features at the Zoo:


1894: Swan Pond—Built on the east side of Rock Creek near the Quarry Road entrance, joined by two small fish ponds in 1896.

1895: Waterfowl and Fish Ponds—Major waterfowl pond excavated in 1893, completed in 1894, landscaped significantly later.


1901-2: Flying Cage—A large flying cage, 158 x 50 x 50 feet, is constructed.

1901: Temporary Bird House—Constructed as a temporary wood-frame building with stucco exterior. Skylights lit interior cages. The heating system was a hand-me-down from the Lion House.

1903: Temporary Bird House—50 x 35 foot extension was added to the house.

1905: Temporary Bird House—Received two additions and significant interior work.


1912: Parrot Cage—Gift from John B. Henderson allowed construction of a 24 x 40 x 26 yard high parrot cage, completed in the fall.

1915 Temporary Bird House—Significant repairs made; wooden floor replaced with concrete. "This building is an example of the ultimate costliness of cheap temporary construction."

1917: Waterfowl—Enclosure and pool built for waterfowl, near the flying cage. The large lake was reconstructed, enlarged, and received extensive landscape work.


1922: Flying Cages—Construction of three outdoor cages for hawks, owls, and Australian grass paroquets.

1925: Waterfowl—Received dam repair and silt removal in 1924, and cleaning in 1930.

1927 Service Road - Built from Zoo's western border.

1927: Large Flight Cage—30' x 60' x 35', was built near the existing large flight cage.

1928: Bird House—Construction began in spring 1927, completed and opened in summer. Extensive grading was required to secure level ground for this building.

1929: Exterior Work—Outdoor cages completed.

1929: Temporary Bird House—Demolished to make way for construction of the future Reptile House.


1932: Flying Cages—An eagle cage is completed to replace the one torn down to make room for the Reptile House.

1932: Bird House—Outdoor runs for cassowaries built on the south side of Bird House.

1933: Bird House—Regrading work was continued with eventual plan of providing level ground for cages.

1934: Bird House—CWA built a brick smokestack to replace old metal one.

1935: Bird House—Received some interior work by the EWA.

1935: Condor Cage—Completed by EWA.

1937: Bird House—A major addition, 43 x 133 yards, was completed and interior art was done by the Treasury Art Relief project.


1940: Waterfowl Ponds—A series of four waterfowl ponds were constructed by the WPA. Concrete, lined with a selection of stone to "represent an ideal section of the geology of this region."

1940: Old Large Pond—The pond was filled in and planned as a future parking lot and picnic area.

1950: Bird House—Small change, a set of interior cages modified.


1952: Flying Cage—Old wooden shelters in the large outdoor flying cage replaced with brick-concrete shelters.

1953: Waterfowl Ponds—Small concrete shelters were constructed to replace decaying wooden ones and to give the birds protection.

1953: Bird House—Significant cage remodeling on the interior; 34 cages' wire mesh replaced with glass.

1957: Birds of Prey—An exhibit is begun.

1959: Bird House—Significant plaster repair done; interior repainting, changing original color palette; and exhibits renovated.


1961: Waterfowl and Monkey exhibit—Monkey Island added to the middle of the waterfowl pond.

1963: Bird House—Bird House receives significant remodeling. Re-opened to the public on February 14, 1965.

1965: Flight Cage—Construction began April 1963, opened to the public on July 18.

1968: Bird House—Exterior work completed with new planting and decoration


1975: Modifications to exterior exhibits begun. Bird runs are increased in size and more water features are added to allow natural nesting conditions.

1975: Flight Cage—Demolished in its entirety.

1976: Bird House—The interior is renovated to demonstrate relationships between species.

1979: New Owl and Eagle Cages—Added on the exterior grounds.


1980: Duck Ponds—Renovated with much improved drainage work and repaired rock work.


1995: Bird House HVAC renovated. Old flying cage is demolished.

2000: Wetlands Ponds—Wetlands exhibit north of Bird House opens March 1.

2005: New bridge spanning valley to connect to wetlands, scheduled to open spring 2006.

Portions of this Ayers/Saint/Gross Architects + Planners analysis are extracted from Smithsonian Institution National Zoological Park: A Historic Resource Analysis, dated September 10, 2004, and prepared by Gavin Farrell at the Smithsonian Office of Architectural History and Historic Preservation under the supervision of Dr. Cynthia Field.