The residents of the big birdcage aren’t as flashy or exotic as many of the 19,000 animals at the Saint Louis Zoo, but they do put on a show.
At ground level, a row of small ruddy ducks with bright blue bills follow the leader, making rippling curlicues in a swamp-like pond. Double-crested cormorants hang out on a wooden bridge, striking a pose with their outstretched wings, as visitors reach for their camera phones.
Above, are the stunt fliers -- egrets and herons – taking long swoops through the cage that's more than 200 feet long. Their overhead F-L-U-T-T-E-R-ing reminds zoogoers that in this exhibit, it’s important to look up.
Way, way up.
There, in the trees, are the fairest of them all -- the roseate spoonbills, flashing vibrant plumage so pink that it’s no wonder they’re frequently mistaken for flamingos.
The public voted to give the Zoo one of the STL 250 birthday cakes as part of the city's 250th anniversary celebration, but the Flight Cage probably deserves one of its own.
Along with the St. Louis Art Museum, the aviary is a a relic of the 1904 World's Fair -- the exposition that sprawled across Forest Park in grand style to mark the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase.
The Smithsonian Institution constructed the cage to house its bird exhibit at the fair. It was believed to be the world's largest aviary at the time -- more than twice the length of a basketball court. Its dome reaches 50 feet into the sky.
“The idea of walking through an aviary -- this was very innovative at the time,’’ said Michael Macek, the Zoo’s curator of birds. “We are still one of the larger ones in the country.’’
Give The Birds Their Due
Macek likes to tell visitors that the Flight Cage is the cornerstone of today’s 93-acre institution that draws 3 million visitors a year and ranks among the nation’s top zoos.
“This cage was in fact the impetus for the zoo to move to this location,’’ Macek said. “That’s always a story I tell, too, because birds don’t always play a really prominent role in many zoos. We always talk about these charismatic mega vertebrates -- the elephants, the tigers, the lions -- but the reason the zoo is here right now is because of this cage. And because of birds.”
The birdcage was a popular fair exhibit. About 1,000 domestic and exotic birds were on display, ranging from partridges, doves and canaries to gulls, geese and swans. In the cage’s original design, an arched passageway ran through the center, dividing it in half. Small species were displayed on one side; big birds on the other.
The Smithsonian paid $17,500 to build the cage and planned to move it to the National Zoo in Washington after the fair. But thanks to an option in the appropriations bill that funded construction, the city was given the option to buy the cage. St. Louis paid a bargain price: $3,500 for the structure, without the birds.
Robert Aull, the city’s park commissioner, thought the aviary could be the first exhibit for a new zoological garden. He bought a few ducks and geese for the cage and erected some temporary exhibits nearby to house an assortment of animals the city had acquired from a zoo at Fairground Park that closed in 1891. The hodgepodge of enclosures and cages housed monkeys, bears, a camel, badgers, eagles, guinea pigs and hares.
Aull’s little makeshift zoo proved it could draw a crowd. On a hot day in August 1905, about 12,000 people gathered near the birdcage for the formal opening of a “new zoo.”
It was a start, but civic boosters continued to press for a real zoo. They argued that big cities like New York and Chicago had impressive zoos providing education and recreation for residents and tourists. If St. Louis were to keep up with the 20th century, the city needed a real zoo.
The campaign picked up steam in 1910 with the forming of the Zoological Society of St. Louis. Proposed sites included Forest Park – after all, the birdcage was already there – Carondelet Park and Creve Coeur Lake, a location considered so distant that one society member suggested that it would be like giving Kansas City a zoo. Forest Park was the popular choice because most city residents could ride a streetcar there for a nickel.
Aull was succeeded as park commissioner by Dwight F. Davis, who objected to using Forest Park land for a zoo. Davis lost that battle in December 1913 when Mayor Henry Kiel signed a law designating 77 acres in Forest Park for the St. Louis Zoological Park. City residents then stepped up to provide funding in 1916 when they approved a property tax for construction of a zoo.
The Test Of Time
The Flight Cage has undergone three major renovations in its 110 years. Planners in the mid-1960s even considered replacing it, according to a story told by Howard F. Baer, then the chairman of the Zoological Board of Control. Baer told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he and zoo director Marlin Perkins nixed the idea because the people of St. Louis were sentimental about the cage “and if it were torn down we might be run out of town on a rail.”
Jeffrey Bonner, president of the Saint Louis Zoo, said the latest renovation of the cage in 2004 celebrated both the centennial of the World’s Fair and the Flight Cage’s role in the creation of the zoo.
“The Flight Cage was a great thing to found a zoo on,’’ Bonner said. “People loved it. When we got it from the National Zoo there was something approaching euphoria in the community: ‘This is it. This is what’s going to get us a zoo.’ ‘’
Bonner said the structure has withstood the test of time.
“The construction was extraordinary,’’ he said. “It was beautifully designed. I think it’s a very elegant structure. It’s still one of the larger flight cages around, but I believe at the time it was the largest. So it was a pretty impressive thing. You weren’t going to see it any place else.’’
The cage’s open design continues to work well today.
“There’s nothing separating you from the plants and animals,’’ Bonner said. “To that extent this old, old exhibit has become a brand new experience that’s really on the cutting edge of exhibit design.’’
A Good Place To Watch Birds – If You Like Birds
Macek said there are between 16 and 18 species of birds in the Flight Cage at any given time, including herons, egrets, ducks, cormorants and ibis.
“All of the birds are native to Missouri. However, many of them are migratory which means they go further south to a warmer climate for the winter months,’’ he explained.
The exhibit celebrates the beauty of river swampland, much of which has been drained for farmland, Macek said.
“We wanted to focus on this endangered habitat. You can see cypress swamps still in the Bootheel area of Missouri. We sort of modeled our exhibit after the Mingo Swamp, which is a beautiful, beautiful place,’’ he said. “When we think of swamps we think of mosquito-ridden, dirty, smelly kind of swamp monster places, but they’re not. They play very important roles for birds, fish, amphibians and lots of other animals.’’
For visitors who wonder why some birds in the exhibit are missing an eye or part of a wing, it’s because they were rescued after being injured in the wild. Macek said local rehabbers will call the zoo when they find a bird with a broken wing.
“It’s alive, and it’s healthy now, but it can’t be re-released into the wild,’’ Macek said. “So now they live in the swamp.”
The Flight Cage is a relatively peaceful place, despite its noisy surroundings. The cage is bordered on one side by a busy park thoroughfare and on the other by the Zoo Railroad. In addition to traffic noise, trains regularly clang past, their whoooohoooos cutting through the quiet.
According to Macek, the birds don’t mind the noise – they’re used to it.
“Many of the birds -- not all of them -- are also found in Forest Park, so they’re birds that have sort of evolved with people, and they are often found in areas that are populated. They could be found in city parks. The sounds of the train going by, the sounds of the cars going by, the sounds of just people -- they become acclimated to those sounds quite readily,’’ he said.
Despite its unique beauty, the birdcage isn’t for all zoogoers, Macek said.
“We eavesdrop a lot, and I will tell you there are many people, apparently, who have a phobia about birds flying over their heads. So they do get a little freaked out,’’ he said. “But I think, generally, it’s a very positive experience, particularly with families with smaller children. Because the birds do get rather close, and it is a sort of calm, peaceful place. And sometimes people will just sit on the path and watch.’’
The Flight Cage is a favorite of Michael Abbene, who has volunteered as a zoo docent for 19 years. Abbene, a people-watcher, as well as a birdwatcher, has observed three basic people behaviors: “One. They don’t come in because they’re afraid of a bird flying on them. Two, they walk in and keep walking all the way through. ‘This is sort of nice but I’m not sure what I’m seeing.’ And third are the people who take their time and try to figure out which bird is which and what they’re doing. Those are the people getting the most out of the walk.’’
Nicole Forgy of Okawville, Ill., said she usually avoids the aviary because she's not fond of birds. On a recent morning, she agreed to go inside with the kindergartners and first-graders she was chaperoning on a school field trip.
“All the kids wanted to come -- and six versus one -- I lose. I’m in the birdcage today,’’ Forgy said, laughing. “I thought there would be birds dropping bird doo on my head. It’s peaceful and quiet and serene. It’s really nice.’’
Forgy’s 7-year-old daughter Katie was having fun pointing out the birds. Her favorites are the spoonbills.
“I thought they were flamingos because flamingos are always pink,’’ she said.
For the record: If you’re looking for the flamingos, check out the lake in The Wild exhibit area.
One Last St. Louis Thing: Finark!
When Macek started working at the zoo in the early 1990s, he says people would drive by and yell out their car windows: Finark! Finark!
According to Charlie Hoessle, zoo director emeritus, they were mimicking the cry of peacocks, which used to live in the birdcage. And the peacocks would often answer back.
After the peacocks were moved out of the cage, the calls went unanswered, and the Finarking stopped.
It just wasn’t fun anymore.
Note: Historical references in this story are based on “Animals Always: 100 Years at the Saint Louis Zoo” (University of Missouri Press; 2009) written by Mary Delach Leonard who “wrote the book” on zoo history.