Be Your Own Birder

Birding in Zoos

When birders think of the “ideal” birding destination or field trip, they often imagine far-flung locations with exotic species, trekking through dense habitats for a coveted glimpse of a hidden bird, or lengthy journeys with hired guides, customized transportation, and pricey gear.

Unfortunately, for many birders, these types of trips just aren’t in the budget – whether you’re considering a budget of time, money, or energy. But what if you could see birds from around the world, even endangered species, close to home? What if it only took a few hours and you could do it any day of the week? What if the cost of such a trip was less than a dinner out?

You can – visit a zoo.

Madagascar Red Fody at Zoo Zurich – Photo by kuhnmi

But Zoos Don’t Count!

The first argument many birders have against visiting zoos is that captive birds in a zoo don’t “count” for birding. Who says? It’s your list, you count it your way. Perhaps you’ll count captive birds separately from those you see wild in the field, but they can count nonetheless. You may never have the time, money, or energy to visit Australia to see a southern cassowary, or to trek to Antarctica to see an emperor penguin, or to spend time in Africa to see a lesser flamingo. But you can see all these birds at zoos, aviaries, and marine parks. You will see them, observe them, hear them, and often have a more intimate, fulfilling experience that you might have in the field – where the birds might not make an appearance at all, or might be too far away to see clearly.

I enjoy zoos of all types, and many zoos are superior facilities that truly have the animals’ best interests in mind. Depending on the zoo, I’ve “birded” all over the world, including exhibits dedicated to the Australian outback, Africa’s deserts, the Oregon coast, the Everglades, the Arctic tundra, South American jungles, and more. I haven’t had to arrange separate airfare, travel for days, or pack excessive luggage to visit all these places, nor have I had to spend a fortune to enjoy birds from all over the world. I often visit a zoo as part of a family trip, and I enjoy local zoos regularly.

What Zoo Birding Gives Birders

Birding in zoos offers far more than just a guaranteed or easy sighting, however. When you visit a zoo, aviary, or marine park, you can…

  • See birds more closely and intimately than even the best birding optics, often just a few feet or even a few inches away.
  • Personally interact with birds through feeding opportunities with nectar cups, seed sticks, fruit bits, or feed pellets.
  • Ask questions of keepers and trainers to learn more behind-the-scenes details about the birds you see.
  • Enjoy shows and training sessions featuring a variety of birds as they are offered enrichment opportunities.

I’ve been inches from birds that would never let me get so close in the wild. I’ve fed an emu, flown an aplomado falcon, given nectar to rainbow lorikeets, interacted with great horned owls, learned the age of an Andean condor, and even seen birds that are classified as extinct in the wild, all thanks to zoos and aviaries.

Feeding Rainbow Lorikeets at a Zoo – Photo by Mathias Appel

What Birders Give Zoos

In addition to enjoying birding opportunities with captive birds, a birder’s visit to the zoo also benefits the birds. With your zoo admission, you can…

  • Support breeding programs, including bird breeding, that helps threatened and endangered species populations.
  • Raise the popularity of bird-related exhibits so the facility can further expand their efforts for helping birds.
  • Support conservation-minded jobs for zookeepers, horticulturists, veterinarians, and animal trainers.
  • Introduce others to birds when you bring guests to your local zoo and show them how amazing birds can be.

I love to give back to my local zoo, and I’m a proud zoo member. That membership helps support all the zoo’s programs, and I’ve also donated to wildlife conservation programs the zoo promotes, as our local zoo highlights different programs around the world, changing focus every few months to showcase even more support opportunities. I recommend zoos to visitors, and compliment zookeepers and other staff about how enjoyable the zoo is each time I visit.

Zoos Hit All the Universal Truths

As I’ve developed Be Your Own Birder, I’ve uncovered the universal truths of birding. Because these truths are relatively broad – allowing for birding in many different ways for many different types of birders – zoos and aviaries fit each one of them.

  • Enjoyment – We don’t choose to visit entertaining places we don’t enjoy. While birds may not be the only thing you enjoy about a zoo, that overall enjoyment is a key part of being a birder.
  • Deliberate Intention – Visiting a zoo, by definition, is a deliberate act. You plan to go, purchase the admission, and view exhibits precisely to enjoy the animals, including birds, that each one houses.
  • Education – You can’t help but learn when you visit a zoo. Exhibits often feature interpretive signage to teach you about each animal, and training shows and keeper talks are other ways to learn about birds.

If these are our defining principles of being a birder, and a zoo clearly encompasses each of these principles, why wouldn’t birding at a zoo “count” for birding?

Northern Rockhopper Penguin at the London Zoo – Photo by Karen Roe

Wild Birds at Zoos

While the focus of a zoo may be on its captive residents, many zoos also have flocks of wild guests enjoying the rich habitat the zoo provides. Because zoos typically promote native landscaping, low chemical use, low ambient noise, and dense plantings, not only are exhibits ideal habitats for the captive residents, but wild birds will happily take advantage of the same space. At different zoos and aviaries, I’ve personally seen a wide variety of wild birds in the same habitats, including…

  • Carolina wrens collecting nesting material from a black bear exhibit
  • Wood storks creating a rookery alongside African species habitats
  • Bald eagles perched alongside Andean condors and scarlet ibises
  • California quail foraging among native flowerbeds adjacent to parrot habitats
  • Boat-tailed grackles feeding inside American alligator exhibits
  • Black-chinned hummingbirds sipping nectar from flowers in South American exhibits

These are just a few of the birds I’ve enjoyed at zoos, right alongside the wide range of amazing species the zoo presents. It may not be “traditional” birding, but what’s traditional after all? Be Your Own Birder is all about birding in your own way, and if your way includes great experiences at zoos, aviaries, and marine parks, that’s great birding for you. Enjoy it!

Zoos I Recommend

I visit zoos every opportunity I have, and each of these zoos is one I’ve enjoyed and would happily visit again. Be sure to add your own favorite zoos in the comments – I’m always looking for more to visit!

  • Brevard Zoo – My own local zoo, with two free-flight aviaries and numerous other bird exhibits. Don’t miss the southern cassowaries!
  • Tracy Aviary – A freestanding aviary with dozens of bird species to enjoy in exquisite exhibits. Be sure to visit the Owl Forest!
  • Zoo Miami – A stunning zoo well worth a full day’s visit. Don’t miss the lawn flamingos, extensive free-flight aviary, and the harpy eagle.
  • Lincoln Park Zoo – Small but mighty, with a phenomenal indoor aviary. Don’t miss the piping plover and snowy owls!
  • Oregon Coast Aquarium – While focused on fish, this aquarium also features an open aviary with puffins, murres, and other local birds.
  • The Florida Aquarium – Another aquarium that offers a tremendous multi-level free-flight aviary and behind-the-scenes with penguins.
Lawn Flamingo Exhibit at Zoo Miami – Photo by Melissa Mayntz

3 thoughts on “Birding in Zoos

  1. Therese Ralston

    I love that you can tick off life list birds that are difficult to get to by seeing them in zoos. This is my type of birding; the casual, inexpensive, guaranteed sighting type of experience. Most zoos take really good care of animals, birds and their unique habitats now, so why not?

    I’m in NSW Australia and BE YOUR OWN BIRDER is on the blogroll of my own birdy blog called birdlifesaving. Most of my birding in done around my home on a mountainous farm, as I travel to and from work with birds at the side of the roads, and at two nearby dams, one of which is dry now but has a bird hide on it.

    I can recommend the Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo NSW, and also Taronga Zoo overlooking Sydney Harbour. The one I really love best though is a place that was my favourite place to visit as a child, an amazing wildlife reserve a couple of hours north of Sydney in Newcastle. Blackbutt Reserve has the world’s best Koala exhibit, but they also showcase exotic and rare bird types from all of our states. There are over 40 different species and the native birds keep trying to break into the enclosures, because the captive birds have it so good.

    I made a blog about beautiful Blackbutt, including all my own photographs; it would be wonderful if you could have a look to see some of my incredible Australian birds. I’m lucky to have so many birds so close out my backdoor.

    Thanks again for your wonderful, wonderful posts; I enjoy each one.

  2. Judi Nicholson

    Thanks for this article. It’s true, there is no set of rules (no overall birding authority) that defines what you can include on your bird list. Speaking for those of us who haven’t the time, money or energy to run off to every special sighting within a 200 mile radius, it makes (me anyway) feel better about counting a captive bird. I think we need “permission” if you will, to count deceased birds as well. My first Northern Gannet sighting was a dead bird on the beach. My only wild sightings of Eastern Screech Owls have been roadkill birds. And the opportunity to see birds from other countries and even other areas of the US makes nearby zoos and avial parks attractive to me.

    1. Mayntz Post author

      Thank you, Judi! I think a “dead birding” piece would be fun to write, so watch for that coming up soon! (Maybe close to Halloween, kind of creepy…) My first sighting of an American white pelican was deceased; and so far my only Virginia rail one a dead one far from any suitable habitat. Interesting!

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