Day Trip: A Trip to Sylvan Heights Bird Park
More than 55,000 visit the park each year
Have you ever heard the raucous call of a laughing kookaburra or watched a peacock proudly fan his colorful feathers? Maybe you’d like to hand-feed a beautiful flamingo or come face to face with an emu, one of the world’s tallest birds? These unique opportunities await you at Sylvan Heights Bird Park in Scotland Neck, North Carolina, located 90 minutes from Raleigh. As one of the nation’s premier avian conservation and education centers, Sylvan Heights Bird Park offers up-close encounters with more than 2,000 magnificent birds representing 220 species from around the globe.
Mike and Ali Lubbock opened Sylvan Heights Bird Park in 2006. Originally from England, the Lubbocks began breeding rare waterfowl in 1981 in Sylva, North Carolina, where they founded Sylvan Heights Waterfowl. In 1989, they moved their entire collection of birds to Scotland Neck, where they established Sylvan Heights Waterfowl II, now called the Sylvan Heights Avian Breeding Center. Today, the center’s animal husbandry and wildlife science experts raise hundreds of birds each year, with a specific focus on rare and endangered waterfowl (geese, ducks and swans).
The center is closed to the public for the safety of the breeding birds, but Sylvan Heights Bird Park displays its waterfowl and other avian species at its lush 18-acre park, which also features natural wetlands, nature trails, a visitor center and a gift shop. More than 55,000 guests visit the park each year.
“Most of the waterfowl on exhibit at Sylvan Heights Bird Park were hatched and raised right here at the Sylvan Heights Avian Breeding Center, and some other species were obtained from zoological institutions around the country,” says Katie Lubbock, media and communications coordinator for the park. “In the case of our macaws and cockatoos, nearly all are rescued former pets. Some birds also came to us from a wildlife rehabilitation situation where they’re unable to be released back into the wild, so they have a permanent home in our aviaries.”
Sounds and Surroundings
Skillfully created to resemble natural habitats, these aviaries showcase birds native to South America, North America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. Eight aviaries are walk-through and entice guests to observe toucans, scarlet ibis, king vultures, spoonbills, cranes, doves, swans and many other species roaming in expansive surroundings. Owls, peafowl, pheasants, hummingbirds and other feathered friends inhabit smaller aviaries. Large identification signs, featuring attractive images by renowned National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, provide interesting tidbits about each species on exhibit.
This charming cast of characters punctuates the tranquility of Sylvan Heights Bird Park with squawks, screeches, quacks, honks, whistles, chirps and cheeps. These captivating sounds belong to ducks, flamingos, egrets, herons, parakeets, pigeons, and legions of other birds that unleash them at will.
Some birds communicate with their guests. “Many of our macaws, African grey parrots and cockatoos will cheerfully talk to visitors,” Lubbock says. “They learn to mimic sounds and words that they hear frequently, either from their former owners or from their current environment. One of our African grey parrots even learned to mimic the warning beep that school buses make when reversing in our parking lot — and he would make the sound every time he saw a large vehicle approaching.”
“The birds are accustomed to being around visitors and some really do seem to enjoy being in the spotlight,” Lubbock says.
“Our umbrella cockatoos love to perform for large groups of kids — they will sing and dance on their perches when school groups are nearby,” she says. “Visitors seem to be immediately attracted to the flamingos, scarlet ibis, macaws and other boisterous, colorful birds. But then they look a little closer and start to notice that even the smaller, less colorful species have something unique and interesting to offer — whether it’s an unusual song, friendly personality or amusing behavior.”
Families are sure to observe this in Wings of the Tropics, a spacious aviary that bustles with birds indigenous to Africa, South America, New Guinea, Indonesia and the desert regions of the western U.S. Here, red-billed firefinches and yellow-hooded blackbirds are in constant flight, swooping and gliding from branch to branch, chirping and singing without pause. Others, like the red-eyed Guinea turaco, often land on perches to gaze curiously at their human admirers. And the elegant crested tinamou, in between nibbles of fruit and seeds, coos softly while pecking at visitors’ shoes.
“Birds are often very social, so many of their interactions with one another tend to remind us of ourselves,” Lubbock says. “They argue with one another, play with one another, and defend their mates and offspring from potential threats.”
It’s not uncommon to see birds break up squabbles among their young or preen each other intently. Flamingos, which are naturally gregarious, exist in colonies that can number in the thousands. Sylvan Heights Bird Park has nearly 200 flamingos on exhibit. (Watch them balance on one long leg to rest, or filter invertebrates from the mud and water through their unusual bills, giving the appearance of eating upside down.)
The birds’ diets vary greatly between species. Some birds, like parrots and toucans, require fresh fruit, while geese need greens. Mice and rats are staple foods for carnivorous birds, such as the park’s kookaburra and owls. Other birds, like herons and egrets, feast on fish. And Sylvan Heights Bird Park’s tiniest dwellers — hummingbirds — receive nectar and insects daily to stay in peak condition.
While many bird and waterfowl species claim healthy numbers in the wild, others aren’t as fortunate. Many endangered species that make their home at Sylvan Heights Bird Park — including the blue-throated macaw, Edward’s pheasant and the majestic whooping crane — are experiencing a rapid decline in population due to habitat loss and human development. Other critically endangered birds — such as the Hawaiian goose, Baer’s pochard, Laysan teal, Bernier’s teal from Madagascar and white-winged duck of Southeast Asia — are raised at Sylvan Heights Avian Breeding Center to help ensure their survival through captive breeding. Educating the public about these endangered species and their real possibility of extinction is paramount to Sylvan Heights Bird Park.
There are several ways you can become more familiar with the park’s cherished residents. Keeper Talks take place daily at 1:15 p.m., and offer short presentations about the king vulture, crested screamer, magpie goose or screech owl. The Landing Zone, located near the visitor center, is a large free-flight aviary where guests can purchase a parakeet seed stick or bag of flamingo food for $1 to hand-feed the birds. The Landing Zone is open daily from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2-4 p.m. For families who adore penguins, the park recently announced plans for a penguin exhibit showcasing these comical, water-loving birds.
Sylvan Heights Bird Park is open year-round, and each of the four seasons offers distinctive experiences.
“During the late fall and winter, the waterfowl are looking sharp and colorful in fresh breeding plumage and practicing their breeding displays. Several species native to the southern hemisphere may raise their young during the winter, such as black-necked swans from South America,” Lubbock explains. “Spring and summer visitors will see all of our tropical birds on exhibit and our gardens in full bloom. Guests can watch ducklings hatch in the visitor center incubator and, in mid-summer, our 4-acre sunflower field adjacent to the park blooms all at once, attracting many types of birds and butterflies.”
“Most of the birds perform fascinating mating or territorial displays at certain times of the year,” Lubbock says. “Flamingos build nests from mud and squabble with one another over territory, macaws and cockatoos talk and sing, cranes dance and throw sticks in the air. Crowned pigeons bow and make a loud booming call, hooded mergansers flash their crests and strut across the water … every time someone visits, they will see something different.”
Sylvan Heights Bird Park is open Tuesday-Sunday (closed Mondays), 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is $12 for ages 13 and older, $9 for ages 3-12 and free for ages 2 and younger. Visit shwpark.com or call 252-826-3186 to learn more.
Janice Lewine is the associate editor of Carolina Parent.