Pet Tales: Foxy fliers at the aviary

I went for the canaries but fell in love with the flying foxes.

Canary's Call is the name of the National Aviary's new permanent exhibit that features 32 flying animals, including six yellow canaries and six Malayan flying foxes, which are unlike anything I've ever seen.

Their big, dark, wide-open eyes stared at me from cute, furry foxy faces that are a dark charcoal color. Their backs are a shade of rusty red. They were in a tree, hanging upside down by their claws. Their dark gray wings were folded close to their bodies, and my aviary guide pointed out that the foxes -- all of them females -- have fingers at the end of the wings.

The foxes are actually giant fruit bats. Although their bodies are 3 feet long and they have a 6-foot wing span, they weigh only 21/2 pounds. That's a lot of bat, but trust me on this: They are adorable and perhaps one of the most amazing and unusual animals I've ever seen in person.

"They look like flying Chihuahuas," suggested Patricia O'Neill, Aviary director of education. "We can't get enough of them."

The exhibit was designed to be big enough for the giant bats to spread their wings and fly, but they haven't been doing that in daylight hours. They generally fly at night, and one aviary employee told me she has seen them flying after visitors have left.

In Indonesia and Southeast Asia, flying foxes are "near threatened" because of habitat loss, Ms. O'Neill said. "And they are persecuted because they go into fruit orchards" and eat a lot. They're important to the environment because they are pollinators and seed dispersers. When they eat, they extract juice from fruit and spit out the seeds, many of which take root and grow. Flying foxes travel over an area as large as 500 miles.

Canary's Call opened Nov. 8, on the eve of the North Side facility's 20th anniversary of the designation that allows it to put "National" in front of "Aviary." Other birds in the exhibit include the rainbow lorikeets, Guam rail and rhinoceros hornbills.

This exhibit showcases birds as storytellers in the aviary's first "interpretive museum-style exhibit," said managing director Cheryl Tracy. The storytelling starts with canaries, which for years accompanied men deep into coal mines. If canaries died, coal miners knew deadly gas was building up and they had to get above ground quickly.

"Today, there are figurative canaries all around us," according to the aviary news release, "and birds act as indicators of positive and negative environmental change."

Birds are storytellers that illustrate human impact in five areas: overpopulation, pollution, habitat loss, invasive species and overconsumption. The exhibit includes 178 back-lit photographs that tell the environmental story. What is thought to be the last coal mine canary is featured in a photo taken in 1987 in a British coal mine.

My eye was drawn to a photo of a Siamese cat carrying a dead bird in its mouth.

Cats are "an invasive species, and they kill millions of birds," Ms. O'Neill said.

There are interactive games that visitors can play at two touchscreen kiosks. The games are designed to make children and adults think about ways to help the environment.

Shopping at the aviary

I can never leave the National Aviary without buying unique Christmas and birthday presents. Everything is bird-themed, including salt and pepper shakers, stationery, Christmas ornaments, earrings, socks, calendars and, of course, those identification books used by bird-watchers.

Plush toys and T-shirts are the best-sellers, said Betsy Schwartz, who buys gifts, uniforms, office supplies and just about everything else the aviary needs, except for bird food.

"Right now anything with owls and peacocks is especially popular," she said.

Plush toys, including owls, peacocks, parrots and penguins, are $15.99 and under. Current stock includes a fruit bat that looks much like the live flying foxes in the new exhibit.

Ms. Schwartz buys "local" whenever possible, which includes T-shirts ($12.99-$19.99) and sweatshirts ($19.99-$35). Paint-your-own bird feeders and bird houses ($12.99-$15.99) are popular with children and adults.

Looking for a gift for the man or woman who has everything? What could be more unique than a penguin painting? Once a month, one of the little South African penguins leaves the exhibit to paint with its feet in front of an audience, producing what looks like a bird version of modern art. Paintings are $20 for small, $30 for medium and $40 for large.

"We sell about 50 paintings each month, and people call from out of town to order them," said Ms. Schwartz, whose name and face would be familiar to Oakland shoppers. For 29 years, she owned the Watermelon Blues gift shop.

Pet portraits

Jo Wilkins of Maxi Nation Photography will take pet portraits from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday at Animal Nature, 7610 Forbes Ave., Regent Square (15221).

The suggested donation is $10 per pet to benefit Mist 'N Stone Labrador Retriever Rescue. The Winterfest Portraits sessions will have a winter-themed background, and Santa will be on site. Pets must be leashed or in a secure enclosure.

Photos with Santa

Animal Friends is having Pet Photos With Santa from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m Sunday and Nov. 24 at the Ohio Township shelter, 562 Camp Horne Road (15237). Dogs must arrive on leashes, and other pets in carriers.

A $10 donation gets you three pet photos, which will be mailed to you after the events. The pet boutique retail shop will be open with treats, toys, training supplies and pet-related gifts.

There will also be a Santa photo shoot with pets from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. next Saturday at Petagogy, a natural pet supply store, at 5880 Ellsworth Ave. in Shadyside

Pets will sit on Santa's lap and a free digital photo will be taken by Jenny Karlsson Photography. Ms. Karlsson will email the photo along with details for ordering custom prints, holiday cards and ornaments. Dogs must be leashed and cats and small animals in carriers while waiting for their close-ups.

Pet Tales appears weekly in the Saturday Home & Garden section. Linda Wilson Fuoco: or 412-263-3064. Got a pet health question? Email it to It may be answered in an upcoming Pet Points column by veterinarians at the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic.