Dumbledore, the Aviary’s Eurasian eagle owl, shows what he can do in the recently completed Helen K. Schmidt FliteZone Theater. (Photo courtesy the National Aviary)

On Oct. 5, I headed to the Northside’s National Aviary, a trip once reserved as a childhood treat, for the first time in years. This time it wasn’t to run from exhibit to exhibit and commune with the birds, my frazzled parents in tow.

This time I was attending a preview of the new bird show Wings!, which opens Oct. 9. The show is part of a recent $18.5 million of expansion and renovations to the aviary, which has been a Northside establishment since 1952.

Despite living in or near the city for most of my life, I had last seen the Aviary through much younger eyes, and was excited to see what the renovations had brought. Would it be everything I remembered, and perhaps more?

I was not disappointed.

“It was a well-needed upgrade,” said Pat Mangus, executive director of the National Aviary, in his welcoming speech. “A lot of people think of an aviary as birds in cages. That’s not what we’re about.”

True to his words, the first place we entered was the new Helen M. Schmidt FliteZone Theater, a 125-seat area that allows the audience to observe birds in free-flight action during a 15- to 20-minute show.

According to the Aviary’s expansion and renovation overview, the theater is “the world’s first and only indoor theater constructed exclusively for the presentation of live, free-flight bird shows.”

I had a few moments to digest the spacious room and the constant cackle of bird noises before the lights dimmed and the show began. In the time that followed, we met a cast of characters including owls, vultures, macaws and even a bald eagle, all swooping dramatically through the air inches above our heads.

The show took place to a combination of images, music, lights and narration as handlers worked with the birds, educating as well as entertaining.

As if that wasn’t enough, audience members were encouraged to interact. Halfway through the show, I was handed a stick with food on the end and told to raise it high over my head. I got it perhaps halfway up before an eager seagull came to investigate, and neatly plucked the treat right from the end of the stick.

Watching the gull flap away, I got the same excited feeling in the pit of my stomach as when I came to the Aviary years ago with my mom, and saw the loud and colorful birds for the very first time.

After the show, Manager of Interactive Experiences Cathy Schlott gave us some background on working with the birds, citing positive reinforcement as a powerful tool.

“One of the keys to training is we break everything down into small, manageable steps,” she said.

We eventually left the theater to see the other recently completed additions. These included a rooftop deck that will be used for bird of prey free-flying lure demonstrations (beginning Memorial Day), and an airy Bistro to Go that offers soup, sandwiches and salads to hungry guests.

The renovations and additions were headed by Springboard Design, which incorporated environmentally friendly elements into the construction. Other additions include a new Arch Street entrance and restrooms, as well as improvements to existing areas and exhibits.

One such thoughtful feature was the glass of the entry pavilion, which reduces bird collisions by using a small pattern that appears solid to native Pittsburgh species.

Wings! opens to the public Saturday, October 9and will be presented daily at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. , according to a press releaseThe show is included in the regular Aviary admission cost.

For more information on Wings! and admission prices, visit the National Aviary’s website at www.aviary.org.

Tracy Patinski is a full-time graduate student in Carnegie Mellon’s professional writing program and currently interns with The Northside Chronicle.