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National Aviary's popular rainforest room undergoes $1.3M renovation

Mary Ann Thomas
| Friday, April 20, 2018, 4:39 p.m.

Exotic birds such as the Victoria crowned pigeon and large crowds of visitors that flock to Pittsburgh's National Aviary will be able to start enjoying the popular tropical rainforest habitat again in July when a $1.3 million renovation is completed.

Aviary and city officials announced details of the project Friday.

Inside the tropical rainforest room, several levels of scaffolding have been erected so workers can install 3,146 panes of ultra modern, bird-safe glass designed locally. The room also will get new waterfalls and ponds, along with more tropical plants and bird species.

With its elevated walkway above a pond and surrounded by towering ficus trees, the other-worldly rainforest room is home to 72 birds of dozens of species, including the Victoria crowned pigeons, macaws, the great argus pheasant and even some birds that are extinct in the wild.

The room has a conservatory feel to it thanks to its high, rounded glass ceiling and sides. And it should, since it was built as a conservatory 66 years ago after a natural gas explosion left Phipps Conservatory in ruins, according to the aviary.

The conservatory-aviary became the only free-flight room for birds in the country.

Over the years, the aviary became more than a habitat for exotic wildlife. It became a destination for endangered birds where experts worked to save species from around the world.

The aviary's most popular exhibit, the rainforest room, has been getting old and a bit leaky. While structurally sound and in generally good condition, aviary officials said glass needed to be replaced and other renovations were desired.

“As you can imagine, bird-friendly glass is important to us,” said Cheryl Tracy, the aviary's executive director.

The aviary consulted with the American Bird Conservatory and others as it considered which glass it would use. Collisions with glass are a mortality issue for birds everywhere, so it was important to make the right decision.

Given the region's history and expertise in glass, the replacement “bird glass” was designed and made by Vitro Architectural Glass, formerly PPG Glass. Its research facility in Harmar created Starphire glass, an ultra-clear architectural glass used for the exterior of The Tower at PNC Plaza in Downtown Pittsburgh.

The special bird glass is Starphire glass manufactured by Vitro's plant in Carlisle. It was acid-etched to give the glass a milky hue, according to Dick Beuke, president of Vitro's operations in the United States and Canada.

The glass allows ultraviolet rays to penetrate, which benefits the trees and plants, while the milky color of the glass achieved by acid etching prevents birds collisions from inside and outside.

For the four-month project, the rainforest birds will live in temporary homes throughout the aviary.

The project is being paid for by donations from the Allegheny County Regional Asset District and the Colcom Foundation. Other project supporters include Trib Total Media.

The Regional Asset District, which is supported by a portion of sales taxes in Allegheny County, was formed in the early 1990s to aid recreational and cultural assets such as the aviary.

“The aviary is a unique treasure,” said Dan Griffin, chairman of RAD's board of directors. “There is no other National Aviary,” he said.

The aviary receives nearly 200,000 visitors a year.

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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