Smithsonian National Zoo’s New Bird House Highlights Migratory Birds’ Incredible Journeys

Ruddy ducks in the Prairie Pothole Aviary.
Ruddy ducks in the Prairie Pothole Aviary. / Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute

Indigo buntings are striking songbirds, with blue-black plumage and a cheerful song that rings out from the treetops in spring. They spend the warm months in the eastern United States, feasting on insects and seeds at forest edges and in overgrown fields and orchards. Then, as food grows scarce with the onset of autumn, tens of millions of buntings—each weighing about the same as three nickels—begin flying south to Central America and Caribbean islands, a distance of roughly 1200 miles. They gorge on insects all winter, and then depart for the return journey.

An indigo bunting sings from his perch on a sunflower in Maryland.
An indigo bunting sings from his perch on a sunflower in Maryland. / Scott Suriano/Moment/Getty Images

The hundreds of bird species making these incredible migrations are under pressure now. A major study by the Audubon Society in 2019 examined 140 million records, including observations from citizen scientists, of 604 North American bird species to assess their risks under different degrees of global warming [PDF]. The results showed two-thirds—389 species—were at risk of extinction from climate change.

A wood thrush on a branch against a green background
Wood thrushes are at risk from climate change, according to the Audubon Society. / Larry Keller, Lititz Pa./Moment Open/Getty Images

While indigo buntings, for example, face less danger than other species, its grassy habitats could be reduced by increased wildfires and urbanization, and spring heat waves could affect their chicks’ survival. Under a scenario where the average global temperature warms by 3°C—which could occur as soon as 2080—the buntings’ range would shift north, losing ground in the South and Midwest and extending into Ontario and Quebec. 

The new face of the National Zoo's Bird House.
The new face of the National Zoo's Bird House. / Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute

The story of North American migratory birds and the habitats they rely on is the focus of the dazzling new Bird House at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park and Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C. Opening on March 13 after a six-year, $69 million renovation, the exhibits present familiar birds in a fresh, unified way—and drive home the message that people can take simple steps to protect birds’ future.

The 1928 mosaic and brick arch to the original 1928 Bird House in the new foyer at the National Zoo.
The historic arch to the original 1928 Bird House is the centerpiece of the new foyer. / Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute

This new approach is vastly different from earlier incarnations of the Bird House, which opened in 1928 and for decades displayed exotic birds from “Africa, Australia, Asia—anywhere but North America,” Sara Hallager, the zoo’s curator of birds, tells Mental Floss. When the time came to give the Bird House a long-overdue revamp in the early 2000s, curators wanted to modernize the exhibits to reflect migration and the importance of ecosystem conservation. “It was this idea that birds of North America, our birds, our national treasures, are in huge trouble, and nobody really knows about it,” Hallager says. 

A black-and-white warbler, one of the migratory songbirds on display in the National Zoo's new Bird House.
A black-and-white warbler, one of the migratory songbirds on display in the National Zoo's new Bird House. / Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute

With the new Bird House exhibits, zoo curators and scientists from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center are working together to study species while they’re still relatively common. Hallager’s staff is learning how to successfully care for bird species that have never been kept in zoos before and raise generations of them as a line of defense against future population decline. The zoo’s husbandry team raised the Baltimore orioles, wood thrushes, and scarlet tanagers in the new Bird House. Meanwhile, Migratory Bird Center researchers are working in the wild, collecting data about birds in their natural habitats and informing the zoo’s conservation goals.

A person holding a white-throated sparrow
A biologist holds a white-throated sparrow after it was caught in a mist net at the bird banding station. / Kat Long

“We don’t want to be in a situation—the California condor is a good example—where it got down to, like, 20 birds, and all of the sudden they’re pulling these birds in from the wild into a captive setting [to save them],” Hallager says. “We don’t want to be down to 20 indigo buntings and realize, oh my gosh, we have to rescue these birds from the wild. So we’re figuring this stuff out now. It’s very much a proactive approach to looking ahead. 

“Now’s the time to learn about these animals while we can still learn about them.”

Informational panel in English and Spanish about bird migration
Panels in English and Spanish offer context for the birds' migrations. / Kat Long

In some cases, birds that are not yet at risk may depend on habitats that are threatened, says Autumn-Lynne Harrison, a research ecologist at the Migratory Bird Center. Studying birds while they’re still plentiful in their marshes or grasslands allows scientists to quickly pinpoint areas of concern. “Gathering birds together in an aviary, or studying multiple species in a habitat, can really give us more information than just a very expensive, species-by-species approach,” she tells Mental Floss.

The Bird House and its outdoor exhibits recreate three of those important habitats, with 56 bird species, native plants, fish, and invertebrates, plus informational panels that show how peoples’ choices impact the animals.

The National Zoo's new Bird House flyway.
The "flyway" leads visitors into the first aviary in the National Zoo's new Bird House. / Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute

Visitors approach the Bird House through a garden of native plants like highbush blueberry and purple coneflower, whose fruits and seeds provide food for migrating birds. From the house’s new foyer, guests walk through the “flyway,” a hall festooned with larger-than-life photographs of the birds they’re about to see in the three major exhibits, which mimic natural habitats that are crucial for migratory bird survival.

Delaware Bay aviary at the National Zoo with shorebirds and ducks
Shorebirds like sanderlings and short-billed dowitchers (on the sand) and blue-winged teals populate the Delaware Bay Aviary. / Kat Long

First on the circular route is the Delaware Bay Aviary, a gorgeous, immersive recreation of a mid-Atlantic salt marsh populated with shorebirds and ducks. As recordings of laughing gulls play overhead, large saltwater tanks suggestive of a vibrant estuary hold fish and horseshoe crabs. The sandy shores are built at eye level, so guests can get a close look at the red knots, ruddy turnstones, and blue-winged teals—which are not behind glass or nets, but are free to fly among people walking through their habitat.

Ducks in the water in the National Zoo's Prairie Pothole Aviary.
Ducks including canvasbacks, American widgeons, green-winged teals, and Northern shovelers paddle around the Prairie Pothole Aviary. / Kat Long

Next up is the Prairie Pothole Aviary, reproducing a type of wetland in the upper Great Plains that offers important rest stops for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. Visitors encounter blue-billed ruddy ducks diving underwater and a pond crowded with northern pintails, green-winged teals, and black-necked stilts. Throughout the aviaries, signs in English and Spanish explain how the ecosystems support migratory birds on their journeys. 

The Bird-Friendly Coffee Farm Aviary at the National Zoo.
The Bird-Friendly Coffee Farm Aviary demonstrates how agricultural sites can be valuable habitats for migratory songbirds. / Kat Long

The final aviary presents a bird-friendly coffee farm in Central America, complete with actual coffee plants, palms, and a babbling brook within a two-story skylit room. Bright green parakeets nibble on delicious-looking salads in elevated trays, while cedar waxwings, Baltimore orioles, red-eyed vireos, and other colorful songbirds fly freely through the trees. The squawking flock demonstrates how agricultural sites can provide supportive habitats for North America’s backyard birds and other animals (and how caffeine fans can help them by buying bird-friendly, shade-grown coffee).

A biologist holds a female northern cardinal and measures its wing.
A Migratory Bird Center biologist measures a female northern cardinal's wing before attaching a colored band to its leg. / Kat Long

Off the Bird House’s foyer, a stop at the bird banding station reveals how researchers can track migratory birds on their long journeys. Smithsonian scientists gently capture wild songbirds in mist nets, then weigh, measure, and attach tiny color-coded bands to their legs before releasing them—with the hope that the birds will return to the same area in the following year. Visitors can inspect the miniscule transmitters that help scientists track birds in real time, or learn how to identify migratory birds in their neighborhoods. They’ll likely be inspired to help save the tough little voyagers.

The takeaway for visitors is to “live bird-friendly—keep your cat indoors, drink bird-friendly coffee, plant native plants, pick up trash on the beach, [and] don’t use pesticides,” Hallager says. “These are all easy things that people can do. And the Bird House gets all of those messages across in many different ways.”