Managing a North American Songbird Aviary at the Akron Zoo

The Akron Zoo’s Grizzly Ridge Aviary is home to 27 species of North American songbirds native to Ohio, including passerines, waterfowl and gamebirds. The Mike and Mary Stark Grizzly Ridge area of the zoo highlights North America’s native species including grizzly bears, North American river otters, red wolves, coyotes, and one of AZA’s largest North American songbird aviaries, which was established in 2013.

Most of the aviary birds are wild-hatched birds that are rehabilitated after injury in the wild, and some are captive-hatched from other zoological facilities. Due to Akron Zoo’s partnerships with Ohio Lights Out (Lights Out Cleveland and Lights Out Akron-Canton) and licensed-wildlife rehabilitators, the Akron Zoo can provide homes for many injured and rehabilitated non-releasable birds that are found in Northeast Ohio and the surrounding region. Ohio Lights Out is a program run by the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative (OBCI) that “is working to prevent bird collisions [with buildings].” A study (Loss, Will, Loss, & Marra, 2014) estimates that over one billion birds die from building collisions in the United States annually, and this is most common during spring and fall migration. Most of these birds come to the Akron Zoo with wing injuries or other types of physical traumas suffered from a window collision.  After their quarantine period, they are flight-tested to ensure they can navigate the terrain of the aviary and perch and fly appropriately. By allowing these birds to have a second chance in the aviary, guests can gain an appreciation for native birds and learn about conservation actions they can take to help local wildlife.  The Akron Zoo is a partner of OBCI and financially supports OBCI’s Lights Out programs through the Akron Zoo Conservation Fund.

The Aviary is a close representation of the birds’ natural environment built into a hillside of the zoo. The terrain includes grass, dirt, rocks and a pool of varying depth and water flow.  There are two indoor holding areas with shift doors directly to the habitat for birds to access shelter. These holdings can be split into two or connected into one large holding by a shift door. This is helpful for separating some birds for medical treatment, but still allowing them visual access to other birds, which fly in and out from the aviary. This is an immersive habitat, with guests able to walk on a wooden deck and view birds in trees at eye-level or look down into the habitat at the ground birds below. Staff attendants are not necessary to allow guest access into the aviary, due to a double set of magnetic doors that only allow one set to be open at once.

Seasonal changes greatly affect the management of the habitat. Winterization measures include the installation of multiple radiant heaters, bedding areas with straw, installation of pool heaters and a heated birdbath. Upwards of 40 cut pine trees, donated by a local tree farm, are also added to the habitat to provide natural shelter for the birds. Small migratory species, such as warblers, are housed indoors during the coldest months to protect them from the elements. The winterization tools are removed in spring and nesting material is added in preparation of breeding season. During summer, the indoor holding temperatures are brought down by fans, the pool is cleaned weekly to prevent algae growth, and birds are misted intermittently throughout the day with a hose from the keeper area.

The Aviary promotes local conservation ideas that zoo guests can implement at home, such as feeding birds and planting bird-friendly trees and shrubs in their own backyards. The birds are fed on multiple hanging feeders placed throughout the habitat, with considerations being made to place them under shelter during inclement weather.  There are also multiple seed feeders with seed mix that are continually restocked so the birds always have access to this mix. During winter, chopped nuts are added to the diet to help birds maintain appropriate weight. In the summer, nectar feeders are placed throughout the habitat. The birds are also fed wax worms daily throughout the year, which is a high-value food item, typically on the deck in the morning as a part of a training program. Trained behaviors include voluntary scale training, deck feeds and having birds eat from keepers’ hands. Having birds come to the deck to feed or to keepers’ hands allows for keepers to get a better visual on the birds and assess their physical well-being. Scale training allows keepers to better monitor the health of the birds and catch any medical issues early. Goals for future training include a recall into the holding area, station training to separate each species, crate training and a voluntary footbath behavior for preventative treatment of foot mites.

Challenges to managing a large multi-species aviary include getting visuals on birds on a regular basis, capturing birds from the habitat, tracking nests and nesting pairs and accessing the habitat when repairs need made due to size of keeper doors, terrain and keeping birds from interacting with construction equipment. Training deck feed and hand feed behaviors help with getting visuals on birds and maintaining an accurate census of the birds. Future training of crate and recall behaviors could help with capturing birds from the habitat. Tracking nests has been made easier by using plastic numbered tags to mark individual nests and an online chart that has the ID tag, species nesting, possible parent ID accession numbers and comments to update during the nesting process (number of eggs, hatchlings, fledglings, etc.).

A dynamic, multi-species North American aviary can have many challenges regarding avian management. These challenges provide opportunities for innovation, collaboration and professional growth of the keepers who take care of it. The Aviary also provides many benefits to the zoo and community as it allows for educational opportunities for our local community.  Recently, Akron Zoo has received a RemotEDx Grant that is a state-level initiative.  The initiative brings together a unique mix of remote, hybrid and blended learning partners from across the state.  It helps schools and districts enhance, expand and more effectively scale high-quality remote, hybrid and blended education delivery models.  The focus at Akron Zoo is on problem-based learning and local species conservation, with North American songbirds as a primary focus.

Akron Zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and is a founding partner of the AZA’s SAFE-North American Songbird Program.  SAFE (Saving Animals from Extinction) is a program that leverages the conservation efforts of the AZA’s entire membership, which includes 238 accredited zoos and aquariums.  Primary goals of the SAFE-North American Songbird Program include:

  • Addressing the effects of free-roaming domestic cats on songbird populations
  • Preventing bird window collisions
  • Addressing the impacts of the illegal wildlife trade on North American songbirds
  • Prevention of habitat loss and the effects of non-native species on North American songbirds
  • Increasing the awareness of the effects of environmental contaminates on North American songbird populations.

Many zoo visitors are surprised to see a North American songbird aviary in a zoo.  They come expecting the traditional combination of “lions, tigers and bears…” which are also a focus of the Akron Zoo.  However, North American songbirds have their own conservation message to share.  While most people think of our North American songbirds as common, the truth is that these populations have declined at an alarming rate.  The biodiversity crisis has come to our own backyards. According to the American Bird Conservancy, “In less than a single human lifetime, 2.9 billion breeding adult birds have been lost from the United States and Canada, across every ecosystem and including some familiar bird species.”  To put it another way, 25% of our North American songbirds have vanished from our landscape since the 1970s.  Our hope is that the Akron Zoo’s North American Songbird Aviary will inspire conservation actions that prevent these beautiful species from permanently disappearing from our own backyards.

Loss, S. R., Will, T., Loss, S. S., & Marra, P. P. (2014). Bird-building collisions in the United States: Estimates of annual mortality and species vulnerability. The Condor, 116(1), 8-23.

Mallory Balmert
Wild Animal Keeper II
Akron Zoo

Managing a North American Songbird Aviary at the Akron Zoo