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New aviary exhibit creates tropical oasis for birds and humans alike (+photos)

SALT LAKE CITY — A flock of exotic tropical birds has found a new home in Utah, and the public is now welcome to come visit their lush little oasis in the corner of Tracy Aviary.

The aviary opened the doors Wednesday to its new free-flight exhibit of tropical birds and plants, Treasures of the Rainforest, which has collected 15 different species of birds from along the equator and more than 70 varieties of plant life to help them feel at home. Most of the birds fly free, spending their days swooping around the humid, open habitat and chattering to anyone who will listen.

With technological distractions, safety concerns or other factors keeping more and more kids indoors rather than outside in nature, the exhibit can be a beautiful and safe tool for parents to broaden their children's experiences, said Tracy Aviary Executive Director Tim Brown.

"There needs to be a safe way to get kids to explore and get excited about the outdoors," said Brown, backed by the call of a Green Wood Hoopoe sounding through the exhibit. "Not only is it filled with hundreds of plants, but it's got dozens of colorful, blusterous birds that make it an exciting thing, something that can actually compete with some of the things (children) are doing with technology."

Brown noted that the building housing the exhibit was constructed with public input on design and in deference to concerns about obstructing community sight lines. It is also a "bird friendly" design, meant to keep its winged neighbors from flying into the side of the structure.

The exhibit was made possible from a ballot measure passed by Salt Lake County residents in 2008, appropriating $19 million to build up Tracy Aviary and Hogle Zoo. Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams voiced appreciation for that support, which is now benefitting children and families in a number of ways.

"Salt Lake County residents appreciate the aviary because of the education value it brings to the community," McAdams said before joining Brown and a flock of aviary employees in a ribbon cutting. "It's a great place for families to visit, to form memories and spend time together, and enjoy this great community that we live in."

Treasures of the Rainforest is also a conservation partner, Brown noted, hosting birds like the Guam Kingfisher, which is currently extinct in the wild after the introduction of foreign predators on the island decimated their numbers. The birds exist only in captivity now, but are being bred with the goal of eventually reintroducing their kind back into the wild, Brown said.

Kate Lyngle-Cowand, curator of exhibit collections at the aviary, called the exhibit "a mini tropical vacation right in the middle of the desert." It is specially designed — right down to a climate that keeps the habitat at a constant 70 degrees with 45 percent humidity — to help the birds be comfortable and act as they naturally would in the wild.

"We can really see them be birds, we can see them vocalize and display to their mates and forage for food," Lyngle-Cowand said. "It's a great chance to see them fly over our heads and really experience what it's really like to be around them."

Among the exhibit's visitors Wednesday was Kristina Henson of Highland, who marvelled at the birds alongside her 2-year-old daughter, Aria.

"I love that we can be inside with the birds around us," Henson said. "It's our third time here (at Tracy Aviary) and she loves to see the birds."

So far, Henson and her daughter don't have a favorite bird in the new exhibit.

"They're all so neat," she said.

Email: mromero@deseretnews.com

Twitter: McKenzieRomero