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Aquatic Life Support and... Birds?

Updated: Feb 27, 2019

Al and Rich are at Smithsonian’s National Zoo, working hard on a new project called Experience Migration.

This exhibit will immerse visitors in the phenomenon of bird migration through the Americas and set the standard for non-charismatic species to have their story heard.

It's pretty typical for zoo visitors to pass songbird aviaries

in a beeline towards the more "charismatic" animals like tigers or pandas.

Popularity, of course, has no direct correlation to the value of a species on its environment. The disconnect can really strain the efficacy of zoos on conservation issues. After all, who is going to care about a little brown bird, when the tigers are in so much peril, right?

But that's exactly why immersive exhibits are vital for less popular zoo inhabitants like reptiles and birds. Creating new ways to educate the public on important conservation issues can really help. The Smithsonian's National Zoo has launched a plan to do just that. We are proud to be a small part of it!

So, what's it going to be like?

Per the Smithsonian's National Zoo:

"Hands-on, interactive exhibits, walk-through aviaries and a bird-tracking lab will immerse visitors—body and mind—in the phenomenon of migration and bird conservation. Ongoing citizen science activities, STEM-based curriculum for teachers, and mobile apps will encourage visitors to stay involved long after leaving the Zoo."
  1. Shorebird migration—the story of shorebird migration from the southern tip of South America to the Arctic tundra. Seasonal changes in the availability of food are emphasized as the driving force of these movements. Red knots and other shorebirds fly alongside guests toward a bright, open marsh pond and themed beach with live horseshoe crabs.

  2. The prairie pothole region of the upper Midwest—where temporary wetlands fill with snow-melt and seasonal rains. Pools line either side of the curved walkway. Ducks thrive in this landscape, shaped by ancient glaciers and abundant with food and extensive grasslands that safely conceal nests. Guests learn that many waterfowl populations have rebounded due to dedicated conservation efforts, though this wetland breeding habitat is among the most threatened ecosystems.

  3. Songbirds—whose impressive journeys can take them from the backyards of the U.S. and Canada all the way to coffee farms in Latin America. Three-quarters of the world's coffee farms destroy forest habitat to grow coffee in the sun and often use harmful pesticides and fertilizers that poison the environment. When forests disappear, migratory songbirds disappear, too. In order to combat population and habitat loss, Smithsonian scientists created the Bird Friendly certification.


Wait, my coffee is involved?

YES. And Smithsonian scientists have actually created a certification!

"Bird Friendly habitat flies above the rest by ensuring a combination of foliage cover, tree height and biodiversity proven to provide quality habitat for birds and other wildlife. Certification standards cover everything from canopy height to insect biodiversity to protect the wildlife that lives where coffee is grown. Bird Friendly coffees are also certified organic, meaning they are grown without pesticides, which is better for people and for the planet." — Smithsonian's National Zoo

Not only does this exhibit teach visitors about the concerns surrounding coffee growers, they've created a real solution. Moreover, it's EASY. Visitors only need to purchase a different brand of coffee during their regular grocery visits. It's a great start.

Visit here to see what brands are certified Bird Friendly.


Photo by National Audubon Society

Want to help migratory birds? Smithsonian's National Zoo says follow these tips for a bird-friendly home and yard:

1. Choose native plants.

Native plants will attract beneficial insects, which are a key food source for most birds. Choosing native plants will help maintain the integrity of your yard’s ecosystem.

2. Kick out invasive and nonnative plant species.

You can significantly improve the habitat in your yard by removing these plants. They often outcompete native species, reduce biological diversity and available food for animals, and alter key ecosystem functions, such as nutrient cycling. Popular plants that are actually invasive include kudzu, English ivy, Japanese knotweed and tree of heaven.

3. Provide plants that offer shelter, food and nesting habitat.

Enhance your yard’s nesting, shelter and restaurant potential by mimicking natural habitats in your area. Maintain a variety of native plants of varying sizes and growth patterns — from low-growing ground cover to vines, shrubs and trees — and with varying schedules for fruiting and leafing. Include both evergreens and deciduous plants. Leaving dead tree snags standing and putting up artificial nest boxes will benefit birds that build their nests in cavities, such as house wrens, Carolina chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, Eastern bluebirds, tufted titmice and a variety of woodpeckers!

4. Keep bird feeders clean.

Bird feeders provide a small but sometimes critical percentage of a bird’s diet, particularly during the harshest winter months. Most of the time, however, feeding birds probably benefits us more than them. Seeing birds up close at feeders brings joy and makes us feel more connected with nature.

5. Don't forget the water!

Providing a water source, such as a bird bath or fountain, will invite a variety of birds to your yard. This water source is important all year round. In summer, birds use it to cool off, especially during droughts when water can be hard to find. But it's also helpful during winter, when natural water sources freeze. In early spring, a shallow dish of water lined with stones may entice migratory birds that are passing through.

6. Keep cats indoors.

All those “presents” add up and have a shockingly large impact on bird populations—studies show that domestic owned and unowned cats kill between 1.4 billion and 3.7 billion birds every year. Help slow widespread declines of birds, and ensure a longer, healthier life for your pet, by keeping your cat indoors. 

7. Avoid using pesticides.

Toxic chemicals in conventional pesticides can be harmful to children, pets and wildlife. They can kill birds or cause severe problems that impact survival, such as eggshell thinning and reduced appetite or parental attentiveness. Switch to natural products at home, and buy organic produce to support farmers using environmentally friendly methods to grow crops.

8. Prevent birds from colliding with your windows.

As many as 1 billion birds die each year from collisions with windows. To help minimize this source of mortality in your home, place mesh netting over problem windows to reduce the potential impact (mesh should be a few inches away from the glass), or apply stickers or tape to break up the reflection and make windows visible to birds.


Al, looking particularly excited to be in D.C. again! Hey, there's no time to smile when hard work is afoot!

A particular challenge to exhibit design is creating habitats that are natural, engaging, and inspiring! And we are proud to support the amazing conservation work by Smithsonian by working hard to install life support systems that are efficient, user-friendly, and benefit animal health and enrichment.

It's always a fun challenge to provide life support systems that recreate the complexity of aquatic habitats.

It's important also to step away from the fish world once in a while to remember the diversity of animals that utilize water on this planet.

The Smithsonian's project is an important standard for exhibit design that translates to visitor action, and a fantastic homage to the little things we take for granted in our own gardens.

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