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'Canary's Call' both an exhibit and a warning

| Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Part of the new 'Canary's Call' exhibit at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh Tuesday, November 5, 2013. The exhibit explains how the birds of today can tell us about our natural world.

Yes, the new “Canary's Call” exhibit at the National Aviary has actual yellow domestic canaries, the kind you buy at a pet store. But the title of the exhibit opening Nov. 8 serves as more of a metaphor about ecological and environmental issues, officials say.

Just like miners once carried canaries into coal mines to serve as an early-warning system against gas buildup, animals around the world, feathered and otherwise, send us signals about how we affect their habitat and the Earth.

“ ‘Canary's Call' ... basically states that birds and other animals are telling us things about the natural world, and the question that we ask of ourselves and of our guests is, ‘Are we paying attention?' ” says Patricia O'Neill, director of education at the aviary.

The exhibit, which opens on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the North Side institution's national designation, includes several bird species, along with six giant, 16-inch-long bats called Malayan flying foxes, which hang upside down from a tree in their own room, and can have wingspans of up to 6 feet. Other birds include the Guam rail, rhinoceros hornbill and eight canaries, which will be showcased in a tall tabletop cage designed by a local artisan. Farther down the exhibit's corridor, which branches off of the Tropical Forest, the oldest part of the aviary, is the Lories & Friends room that houses rainbow lorikeets and opened several years ago.

On the wall facing the glass-enclosed bird rooms are informational photos and written text that inform visitors how and why the habitats of these birds and bats are suffering. The birds and bats become storytellers about how humans impact the animals' environment in five areas: overpopulation, pollution, habitat loss, invasive species and overconsumption.

“They are basically telling us things that are happening in the environment, whether they are positive or negative,” O'Neill says. “We're really trying to help people to connect to the fascinating living things that coexist here on planet Earth, and learn a little more about the impacts that human beings have on the animal world.”

“Canary's Call” doesn't only cover problems in exotic places in the world, but issues with local impact, such as the products we use every day with environmentally harmful ingredients like palm oil, and whether we let our cats roam outside.

Hopefully, the new exhibit will encourage people to think about the choices they make, “and understand the connection they make to the global world,” O'Neill says.

The exhibit “can help people to understand the connections and, perhaps, also inspire them to change behavior,” she says.

At the end of the corridor is an interactive, educational game visitors can play at two touchscreen kiosks.

The birds and fruit-eating bats in the exhibit complement each other well, even though bats are mammals rather than birds. But their bone structure is similar, and they both fly, and they share a common ancestor, O'Neill says.

The rhinoceros hornbills, with striking-looking beaks topped by big horns, already were in their spot at the aviary, but their room got a revamp with this new exhibit.

“We've completely changed the looks of the exhibit from what it used to be,” says aviary spokeswoman Robin Weber.

“The whole purpose,” she adds, “is to generate thought and discussion.”

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at or 412-320-7824.

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