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.
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Bird House Animal Demonstration Schedule
10:30 a.m. | Horseshoe Crab Feeding (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays)
10:30 a.m. | Turkey Feeding and Keeper Chat (Thursdays and Saturdays)
10:30 a.m. | Flamingo Keeper Chat (Sundays only)
11 a.m. | Cassowary or Rhea Keeper Chat (Tuesdays only)
11:30 a.m. | Coffee Farm Feeding (Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays)
1 p.m. | Duck Feeding and Keeper Chat (Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays)
In the first of three walkthrough aviaries, visitors learn the story of shorebird migration — from the southern tip of South America to the Arctic tundra. Red knots, semipalmated plovers and other shorebirds fly alongside guests toward a bright, open marsh pond and themed beach with live fish and horseshoe crabs. Interpretive graphics help explain why the Delaware Bay is a prime example of an essential refueling station for birds.
Leaving the Delaware Bay, visitors enter the prairie pothole region of the upper Midwest, temporary wetlands that fill with snow-melt and seasonal rains. Pools for canvasbacks, redheads, American avocets and other waterfowl line either side of the curved walkway. Although this breeding landscape is vitally important for migratory bird species— and is sometimes called “the duck factory of North America” — guests will learn that this wetland habitat is among the most threatened ecosystems.
Entering the third immersive aviary, songbirds flit among canopy trees that grow above coffee plants, representing a traditional, rustic coffee farm. Visitors can spot migratory birds like the wood thrushes, indigo buntings or Baltimore orioles thriving in their warm, tropical wintering grounds alongside a resident flock of tropical barred parakeets. Interpretive graphics feature information on how agriculture impacts migratory birds, because the quality of migratory birds' overwinter habitat affects the success of their migration and breeding.
After leaving the building, guests will walk by outside habitats featuring charismatic favorites like cassowaries, barred owls, bronze turkeys, whooping cranes and American flamingos.
The building’s promenade serves as a model for a bird-friendly garden, demonstrating how native plant life provides food and shelter for birds and other animals.
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.
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 groundcover 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.
Researchers at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center have spent decades learning more about the impact of land management—specifically the farming of crops, such as coffee—on the birds that share these lands. 75% of the world's coffee is farmed with practices that leave no place for birds, or worse, actively destroy forest habitat. When forests disappear, migratory songbirds disappear too.
The Smithsonian’s Bird Friendly® certification empowers growers to conserve habitat and protect migratory birds. Every purchase of Bird Friendly® products supports a coffee or cocoa farmer who maintains trees for birds on their farm.
When we take care of birds and their habitats, we take care of the interconnected systems that we all depend on for survival. Whether you're an individual curious about actions you can take to live a more Bird Friendly lifestyle, a coffee or chocolate professional interested in becoming Bird Friendly certified, or a consumer hoping to get your favorite grocer to carry Bird Friendly products, find out how you can make a difference for birds by visiting the Smithsonian’s Live Bird Friendly page.