In the late 19th century, Pittsburgh’s first plant conservatory was established on the Aviary site, in a location previously occupied by the Western Penitentiary from 1826 to 1880. The conservatory was destroyed by a natural gas explosion in the late 1920s, and in 1952 was rebuilt by the City of Pittsburgh with the addition of birds to the indoor gardens. The Aviary was one of the first zoos to present its collection in free-flight rooms and natural exhibits with over 25,000 square feet of space.

In the 1980s, the Aviary began evolving its focus toward wildlife conservation through captive breeding of rare and endangered birds. When municipal budgetary cuts threatened to close the institution in 1991, a group of concerned citizens formed Save the Aviary, Inc., a private nonprofit corporation. The Aviary was privatized in 1992 and a year later, by declaration of the U.S. Congress, the Pittsburgh Aviary was designated honorary national status and renamed the National Aviary in Pittsburgh.

In 2009, the Aviary began a $17.5 million expansion. Led by SPRINGBOARD Design, expansion includes construction of the Helen M. Schmidt FliteZone Theater, an indoor, 125-seat space for presenting free-flight bird shows, films and educational programming; the addition of a rooftop Sky Deck for bird of prey lure-flying demonstrations and releases; a café; classrooms; new facades; new exhibits; and a new grand entrance and lobby space.  

The Helen M. Schmidt FliteZone Theater is the world’s first and only indoor theater constructed exclusively for the presentation of live, free-flight bird shows. The Aviary’s expansion and renovation has achieved Silver LEED (Leadership in Energy Efficiency and Design) Certification for green building standards.

The Aviary’s flock of 16 African penguins has a new home at Penguin Point, which affords up-close, 360-degree views of the penguins swimming, playing, nesting and scaling rocks in an open-air space. A wheelchair-accessible Kids ViewTube under the exhibit offers underwater views of the penguins as they dive, swim and “flew” through the pool, while domed bubbles allow young guests the chance to  pop up in the middle of the penguin group.

 With world-first avian breedings, numerous education awards, internationally recognized field research and conservation programs, a world-class avian veterinary program that is breaking new ground in preventative care, and multiple opportunities for interactive experiences, the National Aviary has grown from simply presenting its collection in attractive settings to realizing its responsibility to celebrate, protect and preserve birds for the perpetuation of the web of life.