Moves at aviary please residents and visitors alike

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Benito is back.

The people-friendly parrot with the cobalt-blue feathers has been missing in recent months from his cage near the entrance of the National Aviary in Pittsburgh.

The hyacinth macaw had been taken "off exhibit," as they say in zoo and aviary circles, while a bigger and better exhibit was built for him and three other parrots.

The North Side facility doesn't have an official mascot, but Benito is arguably one of its most visible and popular birds. He's been there since the early 1990s, when police confiscated him from an abusive owner.

Benito is rather special. Hyacinth macaws are the largest parrots in the world and are endangered. There are thought to be only 2,000 to 2,500 wild ones, in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay.

Benito is still one of the first birds visitors see when they enter the North Side facility. Just look to the right instead of the left, where he used to be. Benito and Killer, a green-winged macaw who is also a favorite with visitors, perch regally in the front of the new parrot-room exhibit. Killer had been in the Marsh Room.

Two pigeon-size thick-billed parrots perch on their own trees in the back of the parrot exhibit.

The parrot room is one of several changes at the aviary in recent months, including placing two blue-throated macaws on public display for the first time. They had been living off-exhibit in the breeding room.

Stellar eagles will soon be living in a new exhibit with a waterfall and pond.

In the new parrot exhibit, "Benito and Killer come to the front to say 'hi' to visitors," said Pilar Fish, the aviary's veterinarian. "Benito is such a sweetheart."

He is trained to do tricks and obey commands, feats that have been showcased, at times, in educational exhibitions at the aviary.

The four parrots peacefully co-exist in their new living quarters, but they've been tough on the trees and plants that were put into the exhibit.

"The thick-bills just mowed things down," including a banana tree, Dr. Fish said. The bigger birds put their sharp beaks to work, too.

Not that this was unexpected, for "parrots always chew," Dr. Fish said. "We'll give them other things to chew," to spare the vegetation.

Manzanita, an extremely hard wood grown in the West, was used to build perches, which, so far, are withstanding parrot beaks and claws.

One minor move led to an unexpected result. Two spectacled owls were moved from a small exhibit to the Marsh Room so visitors could get a better look at them. Their new habitat, an octagon-shaped cage, is sunnier than their old exhibit, and the change apparently suited the birds.

"They've been together for years and have never bred. We no sooner moved them than the female laid an egg in a large flower pot," Dr. Fish said.

"She is sitting on the egg. When you look in, you can see her eyes peering out above the top of the pot. Animals breed when they are happy."

The egg is due to hatch soon, though it's not known whether it was fertilized.

"We could determine that by candling the egg, but we wouldn't want to disrupt the birds," Dr. Fish said.

Another egg due to hatch any day was laid by an Andean condor, which lives with her mate in an outdoor exhibit. When it comes to breeding, the condors have a good track record.

Last July, their 2-year-old chick, named Kendall for former Pirates catcher Jason Kendall, was released in the mountains of South America. Kendall, who wears a tracking device, was recently spotted by men on horseback who track the birds.

The aviary's spring and summer free-flight bird shows started earlier this month and will continue through Labor Day. "Wings of the World" shows are Wednesdays through Sundays, at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. On a recent day the show included flights and tricks by a buzzard, an African raven and a crown crane, and a parrot sang multiple verses of "Old MacDonald."

Tony Tye, Post-Gazette photos
Benito, the hyacinth macaw who has been a fixture near the entrance to the National Aviary on the North Side for more than a decade, is again one of the first birds visitors see. He was taken "off exhibit" for a while, but is back now in a new parrot room exhibit.
Click photo for larger image.A female spectacled owl sits on her nest at the National Aviary on the North Side.
Click photo for larger image.

Linda Wilson Fuoco can be reached at or 412-263-3064.


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