The Aviary is undergoing some growing pains, but visitors will soon be seeing some big changes at the Northside attraction.

Right now much of the focus is on an all-new penguin exhibit and a revamp of the entrance and hallways leading into the Aviary. But this exhibit is just part of 10 new exhibits planned for the future as part of a $23 million expansion and renovation of the facility. And All of these are part of the Aviary’s long-term master plan to expand their offerings and space to improve visitor experiences.

For example, the main hallways connecting the Aviary gift shop to the rest of the exhibits is being revamped, with new lighting, new signs and a brown polished concrete walkway. The new signs will feature information for children about protecting the environment and invasive species, among other things.

The cornerstone of the current construction is a full-fledged penguin exhibit, with a larger habitat complete with an underwater viewing area, and small chambers for children to view the exhibit from the inside out. These “bubbles” will be accessible to all children, and will allow them to see the penguins up close and personal.

Erin Estelle, the manager of community outreach and the Aviary staffer overseeing the construction efforts, said that the new exhibit will be especially popular since the penguins have only been available to the public through special viewings and shows.

“I have a feeling that these penguins are really going to ham it up with these kids,” Estelle said. “The kids will be able to share the same air space too, and be able to hear them and smell them.”
Part of the exhibit for the penguins will also feature caves where the penguins can build nests and hopefully breed. The Aviary is part of a network that coordinates breeding for species stability, and they will be hoping to breed two of the less common penguins.

Current visible from the street, pieces of land adjoining the Aviary have been roped off, while workers from Mascaro Construction build the complex exhibit that will include a pool filtration and drainage system, along with a fully functional habitat. John Leuch, the project superintendent for Mascaro, said that this project had its own unique requirements.

“The biggest thing is keeping the Aviary open while construction is happening and make sure their happy,” Mascaro said. “And putting the birds first.”

This includes coordinating drilling and construction times so that the loud noises do no effect the birds and the visitors browsing the exhibits.

“The greatest challenge so far has been the noise, so we had to work pretty closely with the construction company,” Estelle said. “Everybody is really excited about the new exhibit coming, especially since it’s the penguins.”

“They have a great personality and our guests really identify with the birds,” Estelle added.

National Aviary Board Chair Mike Flinn said that part of preserving the future of the birds begins with educating the public about them.

“Creating a penguin exhibit was a priority for us, not only because of the appeal of these birds, but also because of their rapidly declining wild populations,” Flinn said. “This exhibit will provide a compelling forum for educating visitors about these birds and for all of us to take conservation action.”

The 60 foot by 40 foot penguin habitat will house 15 to 20 of the birds, while the pool will be about 2.5 feet deep. The penguin exhibit should be finished Memorial Day weekend.

Also included is a theater for birds, a green roof for raptor flight demonstrations, a café and new classrooms. Further into the future is a new façade for the Aviary, a pedestrian entrance and a new gift shop.

“If there is someone who is walking from the neighborhood they can just walk right in,” Estelle said.

The expansion plans are scheduled to be completed June 2010.  Flinn said that the completed expansion will not only make the Aviary an even greater community asset, but will benefit the entire Pittsburgh area by attracting tourists.

“The reinvigorated facility will not only be a cultural gem for the people and families of Pittsburgh to enjoy, it will also become a leading destination for out-of-town visitors, furthering the Aviary’s national status and commitment to excellence.