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Inspiration takes Wing at Tracy Aviary bird festival

Published: 05/11/2009

It's not every day you have a Harris' Hawk swoop so close you feel a breeze from its wings. And it's not every day you see a vulture strike a pose or watch a crow unzip a fanny pack to snatch a granola bar.

Those are just a few things that made Sunday so special at Tracy Aviary's third annual Urban Bird Festival.

Ten-year-old Rachel Slovensky clutched a plush peacock toy under one arm, had a pink flamingo painted on her cheek and dangled handmade bird-watching binoculars from her neck.

"I'm a bird nerd," she said softly.

Flamingos, her second-favorite fair-feathered friends after peacocks, get their bright pink from eating brine shrimp and stay warm in cold weather by standing on one leg at a time.

Visitors to this year's urban bird festival are enjoying about $1 million in improvements to aviary exhibits since Labor Day. The Kennecott Wetlands Immersion Experience opens to the public later this month, as does the updated Amazon Adventure.

Tim Brown, executive director of the aviary, noted there are more additions on the way, thanks to a $19.6 million bond voters approved last fall. The aviary has raised more than half of a required $1.5 million private match needed, in part, for an indoor rainforest exhibit.

And that's on top of $6 million in improvements that have been made there in the past five years, Brown said.

"Humans have always been captivated by birds, by flight, in particular," he said. "So, what we try to capitalize on is teachable moments."

That means attractions that bring human visitors eye to eye with the birds as much as possible. Feeding guira cuckoos or the mallard chicks by hand makes people want more, Brown said, describing the value of the aviary as a launchpad for sparking interest in birds and conserving the environment they rely on.

"We hope people say, 'Sandhill cranes are beautiful. Let's go up to the Great Salt Lake and see them,'" Brown said.

Elizabeth Jarrell, of the advocacy group Friends of the Great Salt Lake, said people are surprised at the amount of life on the Great Salt Lake, including visits from about 5 million birds a year. Many of the species can be seen at the aviary.

"Once they find out about it," Jarrell said, "they want to learn more."

Sitting at a shady picnic table next to a cuckoo enclosure, the Barnes family of West Jordan snacked on Argentinian empanadas -- a hybrid of an egg roll and burrito, as they described it -- and spoke of what they had seen on their first-ever aviary visit. That included shiny green eggs; vivid, orange birds; and cuckoos that swarmed around a keeper who had stepped inside their cage.

"What are you feeding them?" asked 9-year-old Alexandria, her 5-year-old brother Deyton and 12-year-old Caden pressed up against the cage alongside her.

"Worms," the keeper told them as they enjoyed the show.

Their father, Colby Barnes, noted that 2-year-old Brekker was also rapt for much of the day. "He keeps wanting to touch them."