This is a Bronx Tale from an ersatz birder. As most real bird watchers are all excited about the spring arrival of those funny colored sparrows, my birding season is coming to an end. I’m like one of those old winter mall walkers but since I don’t care much for shopping, I go all “Animal House” each winter. You know what they say "You never know who you'll run into in the Bronx."

Ocellated Turkey

Actually this is part one in the story of three exotic bird buildings in the Bronx Zoo. For you wild birders, the 265 acres of the Bronx Zoo is "an important rest stop along the mid-Atlantic flyway and a green oasis in the midst of the big city." In the wintertime when the pickings are slim you can always learn a thing or two about and try your hand at capturing some images of birds from very far away neighborhoods.

Those three buildings are the Aquatic Bird House, the World of Birds and JungleWorld. All three remind me of the great dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History in that they are natural settings with painted horizons on the walls so humans can can continue their fantasies. Like the museum exhibits the dioramas have bright lighting while the public areas are dimly lit.

One major difference is that in the zoo the light is natural sunlight. Another is that all the animals and almost all of the plants are alive. One of my favorite differences between dead and living museums is that often there is no glass. You can be looking at a sign to identify a bird in the World of Birds and a hornbill can come in for a landing as if to say "Don't read that. Look at me!"

The eldest of these three bird house is the Aquatic Bird House.  Designed by the architectural firm of one of New York's forgotten heroes, the Aquatic Bird House opened its doors in 1964.

Getting there, you pass through the Russell B. Aitken Sea Bird Colony. Inca Terns are there entertaining guest year round.


While the Bronx Zoo's reputation for natural settings goes back much further than 1964, the Bison Prairie is 115 years old, Grizzly bears were presented in natural surrounding when the zoo opened and the African Plains goes back to 1941, the Aquatic Bird House might have been the first natural indoor settings. I can't claim that with absolute certainly but in my childhood memories it all seemed so new compared with the bars and concrete of the Monkey House, Big Cats Building and the Old Bird House on the Astor Court. One thing I do remember from my childhood, it was the first departure from bars and zoo residents were mingling about with the zoo goers. There were water birds in the hallways!  

Bronx Zoo Aquatic House  

The first room is a swamp filled with Roseate Spoonbills. I recently learned that back in the early 60's there was a swamp in New Jersey that was being demolished to make way for factories or refineries and the trees that the spoonbills call home came from there. "Somewhere in the swamps of jersey" sounds vaguely familiar.  

Roseate Spoonbill Nesting

Last summer the chicks were the toast of the town here in the Bronx. Looks like this Mama is spending winter setting up for an encore performance.

In the next diorama lives a bird that can only be found in zoos.

Male Guam Kingfisher

The male above who lives up to the cinnamominus part of his Latin name and the beautiful female below are know as the Guam Kingfisher. As a consequence of the introduction of the brown tree snakes these water birds, that are about as big as Robins, have become one of world's most endangered species. In a 2006 count there were less than 100 left in the world and not a single one in the wild.

Female Guam Kingfisher

Captive breeding efforts, first successful at the Bronx Zoo, are underway in the hopes of returning a viable population to the wild. That may be impossible for the foreseeable future on Guam. Millions of brown tree snakes still live on the island, defying all efforts to eradicate them.

Right next door is the entertainment section of the Aquatic Bird House. This bird may not look happy but he will bring a smile to your face.

Laugh like a Kookaburra

Things are looking up for this kingfisher that is always good for a laugh. Perhaps because they are the world’s largest kingfisher they feel that they have a lot to “ooh ooh, ah ah ah, ee ee” about.


Of course the Kookaburra is famous for its call. Heard in ever Tarzan movie I remember being quite surprised when I finally found out that infectious call actually comes from an Australian water bird.

The Laughing Jackass

Next stop, southern waters and the in house Anhinga. They probably are exotics for Bronx waters.


And then the long dark hallway that I found so entertaining as a child, those energetic Puffins.

Puffins at the Bronx Zoo

That is followed by a small coastal community. Not very photogenic but the little salt marsh wave machine is very soothing.

Bronx Zoo Aquatic House

Here's an old photo of one of the residents.


The last big room is all about scarlet ibis in the warmer months.

Scarlet Ibis

In the wintertime they share their sun filled forest with pelicans that hang out in the waters below. I'll bet they'll be glad to see them gone.

Aquatic Bird House

One of my favorite birds in the Aquatic house is the Javan Pond Heron. This beautiful bird that is found in the shallow fresh and salt-water wetlands of Southeast Asia is in full breeding plumage this time of year.  

Javan Pond Heron

And finally, the Storm Stork. The world population of the Storm's Stork is less than 500 individuals.

Storm Stork

In warmer weather you would leave the Aquatic Bird House through a lagoon of flamingo but since it's winter, here's an old photo from there.

Pink Flamingos

Or check out those zany Inca Terns again.

Inca Terns

There has been much progress in the relationship between architects and zoos, so compared with the newer houses for birds this old building might seem dated but the architecture was revolutionary in its day and is still a place of wonder for children of all ages. I'm going to write a follow up about the World of Birds and JungleWorld.

Originally posted to Birds and Birdwatching on Sun Mar 09, 2014 at 06:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by New York City.

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