Animals in this Exhibit

Visitors are invited to flock this way and soar into the fascinating world of North American shorebirds, waterfowl and songbirds. As guests make their way through the shores of the Delaware Bay, a lush prairie pothole and a tropical bird friendly coffee farm, nearly 80 species of free-flighted birds stride, paddle, tweet and fly all around. These immersive aviaries mimic natural ecosystems—places that boost both bird and humans’ wellbeing. New additions to the building offer even more ways to dive deeper into the story of migratory birds, while retaining the charm of the original mosaic archway entrance, on display in the Bird House lobby. 

Inside each of the three walkthrough aviaries are bilingual panels in English and Spanish, highlighting the hundreds of bird species that travel across the Americas every year. And for young children, the Washington Wood Thrush serves as a friendly guide through each of the exhibit areas. In the Observatory room, visitors can learn how Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center staff conduct wild bird banding and use satellite tracking to follow the movement of birds. Daily animal keeper talks and feeding demonstrations give visitors an up-close view of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute’s resident birds. And finally, the Roost gift shop provides visitors a chance to buy souvenirs, apparel and Bird-Friendly® certified coffee and chocolate. 

The outdoor plateau surrounding the Bird House predominantly features birds of the Western hemisphere.  Plus, visitors can see a living example of a bird-friendly garden, where native plants like purple coneflowers, downy serviceberry trees and highbrush blueberry bushes provide food and habitat for birds and other local wildlife.  

The Smithsonian’s animal care experts understand that the environment animals live in is a critical aspect of their well-being; therefore, each free-flight aviary in the Bird House is designed to suit species’ specific needs and give the birds an outlet to use their natural behaviors.  

Habitat areas in the Delaware Bay aviary, for example, were designed to include a mix of ground cover that includes sand, rocks, clay, grass matting and salt water. Driftwood and rocks—which the birds would encounter in their natural environment—serve as “furniture” for perching. Their habitat also contains a running water feature, which gives the birds a space to wade near the water’s edge. 

Additionally, the Zoo’s Bird House keepers provide the animals with special enrichment items to keep them physically active and mentally sharp. Enrichment can range from using natural materials (such as pine needles or driftwood) in their habitat, to presenting their food in a way that encourages foraging (like hiding worms under leaves). 

Environmental enrichment can also influence the birds’ chances of successfully producing chicks. At the start of the breeding season, Bird House keepers “set the mood” by providing a variety of nesting materials—such as dried moss, raffia, cotton, fur, coconut fibers and even cobwebs—so the birds can pick and choose how to assemble and decorate their nests. Many birds choose to take advantage of small, man-made baskets placed throughout the habitats by adding nesting material to them.  

Diet and Feeding 

The Zoo’s Bird House staff considers each species’ food preferences, weight and physiology to provide species-appropriate, nutritionally balanced diets that will support the birds over their lifetime and allow them to thrive in human care. 

Migratory songbirds and shorebirds have different dietary and nutritional needs than their non-migratory counterparts. For instance, migratory birds gain weight during key points in their annual migration cycle. In the wild, this is key to their survival-- the extra calories (i.e., energy) enable them to fly thousands of miles to reach their breeding grounds in spring or wintering grounds in fall. Migratory songbirds at the Zoo exhibit the same physiological weight change. 

Working closely with the Zoo’s Department of Nutrition Sciences, Bird House keepers provide food items that replicate what the birds would be eating based on the time of year. In spring and summer, the birds are fed more insects, which are both rich in protein and easy to find in their northern breeding grounds. In the colder months, the birds eat more fruit, just as they would in their tropical wintering habitats.  

The Zoo’s animal care staff carefully considers the birds’ weight and physiology to make daily tweaks and seasonal adjustments to their diets. Through positive reinforcement training, Bird House keepers are able to regularly monitor the animals’ weights. Keepers cue the birds to voluntarily “station” (stand still upon a scale) while they take note of their weights. If the birds choose to participate, they receive a favorite food item as a reward. This careful monitoring ensures the birds are kept within the weight ranges that their wild counterparts exhibit. 

Now more than ever, raising awareness about the plight of migratory birds is key to their survival.  

Since 1970, bird populations in the U.S. and Canada have declined by 29%, or almost 3 billion birds, signaling a widespread ecological crisis. Studies show tremendous losses across diverse groups of birds and habitats — from iconic songsters such as meadowlarks, to long-distance migrants such as swallows and backyard birds including sparrows. More than one-third of North America’s birds are at risk of going extinct unless significant action is taken to save them and their habitats. 

At the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, scientists and keepers are working together to study, understand and conserve common birds now––before it is too late to save them. 

The Smithsonian is dedicated to understanding, conserving and championing the grand phenomenon of bird migration. Founded in 1991, and located at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center scientists seek to clarify why migratory bird populations are declining before the situation becomes desperate and help raise awareness about migratory birds and the need to protect diverse habitats across the Western Hemisphere. 

For more information on the Smithsonian’s bird conservation initiatives, visit the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center web page. 

Bird House Animal Demonstration Schedule

10:30 a.m. | Keeper Chat: Turkeys (Thursdays and Saturdays)

10:30 a.m. | Keeper Chat: Ducks (Tuesdays and Thursdays)

10:30 a.m.  | Wild Bird Banding Demonstration (Saturdays; weather dependent)

11 a.m. | Keeper Chat: Flamingos (Sundays only)

11 a.m. | Keeper Chat: Ratites (Tuesdays only)

12:30 p.m. | Bird-Friendly Coffee Demonstration and Coffee Tasting (Saturdays)