For the Birds

As a general rule, I hate birds. So when the National Aviary e-mailed me about touring the facility, my natural reaction was "... LOL. Delete."



Illustration by Patrick Neil

I honestly can't tell you when I started hating birds.  It could have begun when I was a child and our pet ducks, which were cleverly named Daisy and Donald (surprisingly, we never had a dog named Pluto), used to chase me and try to bite my butt. I need to pause a moment and go call my parents to ask them why we had ducks as pets. That's just weird.

Or it could have been the time that a downtown pigeon pooped on my shoulder, and the homeless guy sitting nearby started laughing.

Maybe it was that time I was in Mexico eating at an outdoor restaurant, and a bird alighted on my shoulder and pecked my hearing-aid device as if there were a worm behind it.

Or maybe it was that pigeon that dive-bombed me and then played chicken with me and silently taunted me when I lost the game and fell to the sidewalk in terror while pedestrians laughed at me.

The point is, 'Burghers, as a general rule, I hate birds. So when the National Aviary, located right here in Pittsburgh, e-mailed me about touring its facility, my immediate gut reaction was, "Voluntarily enter an enclosed space with a whole bunch of birds? LOL. Delete."

But I'm always looking for things to write about and figured hanging out with birds was sure to be entertaining in a "Mom, I think that screaming lady peed her pants" kind of way.

I met up with Steve Sarro, the Aviary's director of animal programs, as well as Aviary manager of development and marketing Nuelsi Canaan, who, before we began the tour, filled Steve in on my fear of birds. I think Steve thought she was joking.

I did OK until the pelican charged at me.

At least I acted as if it charged me when I saw it take flight from its perch out of the corner of my eye and fly in my general direction from about 50 feet away before landing on the water—about 30 feet away. My bird-petrified brain did not process this peripheral motion as, "Hey, look. A beautiful sea bird in flight." It processed it as, "There is a speeding train headed for your face."

I flinched and shielded my head with my arms while Steve, Nuelsi and my 7-year-old son looked at me as if I needed a straightjacket or a half-dozen Valium.

For the next 15 minutes, I handled myself relatively well until Steve grabbed a tin cup of squirming worms and led us into the "Tropical Rainforest" exhibit while remarking, "You'll notice that so far you haven't been attacked. I'm about to change that."

I laughed; he wasn't joking. Because birds, you see, love squirmy worms, and Steve had me hold out my palm, onto which he placed a squirmy worm. The birds took notice because apparently the worm held up a giant flashing neon sign that said, "Now Open."

To some people, having multiple birds land on their hands and peck at a worm in their palms would be a pleasant way to commune with nature. For me, it was a SPEEDING TRAIN HEADED FOR MY FACE.

Birds started swooping down out of the trees, pecking at the worm, flying at my face, eyeing up my juicy eyeballs.

Then Steve started showing off. "Watch this!" He threw a worm into the air right over my head, and the birds dived for it directly above my head. I hit the floor. Kids laughed at me. My own son pretended not to know the crazy lady spilling the contents of her purse on the floor of the Aviary.

After the attack, the rest of the tour went smoothly. I saw some of the most beautiful, colorful birds on the planet. I fell in love with the eagles—my first time seeing them in person. These majestic birds make you want to put your hand over your heart and start singing a song that has the words "purple mountain majesties" in it.

And the penguins—oh, the adorable penguins. I got to meet one, Stanley, who immediately upon release from his holding cage jumped up into my lap all, "I'm not like the other birds. Love me."

And I did because penguins are more like dogs than they are like birds. Cute. Soft. Fuzzy. They close their eyes in ecstasy when you scratch under their chins. And most importantly, Stanley didn't seem the least bit interested in my juicy eyeballs.

I left the Aviary still afraid of most birds, still hating pigeons, but with a new love for eagles, penguins and other birds, thanks to the education I received from Steve. I left wanting to go back, maybe this time to try to adopt a penguin through the Aviary's sponsorship program.

I shall call him Evgeni.

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