Up close with exotic birds

A visitor to the Niagara Falls Aviary finds herself covered in 
hungry lorikeets eager for a drink...

A visitor to the Niagara Falls Aviary finds herself covered in hungry lorikeets eager for a drink of nectar. -- Photo by Phil Raby

-- Special to Canoe Travel

, Last Updated: 11:54 AM ET

I'm surrounded by birds. They are on my hands, arms, shoulders and one seems awfully interested in my earlobe.

It sounds like a scene out of a horror movie, but I'm not having some sort of Hitchcockian nightmare. And fortunately, I have nothing to fear. These Rainbow Lorikeets using me as their personal perch are quite docile and the swarming only lasts as long as the nectar they are sipping delicately out of the small plastic cup I'm holding.

Getting this close to these captivating creatures from Australia is just one of the activities offered at this Niagara Falls Aviary attraction: Birds of the Lost Kingdom.

It is the largest indoor aviary of birds in the country and in the time it has been open (since June 2003), it has won the New Business of the Year award from the city's Chamber of Commerce and also the Attraction of the Year from Niagara Falls Tourism.

Found just down the street from the Falls and right on the banks of the Niagara River, it is housed in a historical property, built in 1908, that was the former home of the Niagara Falls Museum. When the Museum closed in 1999 and the building was for sale, Larry and Marilyn Vann snapped it up quickly. The Niagara region natives realized it was the perfect place to house a dream they had been hatching for a while.

"Since the Niagara River is a very important birding location and being an animal lover, I thought it might be wonderful to create a place that would showcase the great beauty and diversity of birds from all over the world in an interesting way, while educating people about the importance of ensuring the protection of birds and their environment," explains Marilyn Vann.

To accomplish just that, the building went through extensive renovations to the tune of $15 million over a period of three years. The results are quite stunning.

Underneath a glass-domed ceiling, more than 300 birds from Africa, Australia and South America are flying freely in a 15,000-square-foot setting designed to mimic the ruins of an ancient temple in a tropical rainforest. And they feel right at home because great care has been taken to reproduce their natural habitat through the careful use of exotic plants, palm trees and vines.

Not only does it replicate what you might see in a jungle, but it also comes complete with a background soundtrack as well. Water cascades 40 feet from the top of a majestic waterfall to a pool at the bottom that channels its way into surrounding ponds. Adding to this symphony of natural resonance are the croaks of tree frogs, the clicking of insects and, of course, the calls of the birds.

The sights and sounds of the conservatory can be enjoyed while sipping a coffee at the unique Javanese House Café. Its story reads like a piece of fiction. The café is housed in part of an original home built 125 years ago on the island of Java, Indonesia.

The most amazing thing about this structure is that it's very difficult to find one in such good and complete condition anywhere in the world due to the lack of conservation of these historic homes in Java.

But the Vanns didn't have to go far to find this one. It was being stored just a short distance away in the back of a truck trailer, wrapped in burlap and totally disassembled, abandoned by someone who had brought the home over to Canada but then lost interest in it.

The Vanns bought it, not realizing the effort that would be needed to put together the huge jigsaw puzzle. It took two years to figure out how the pieces all fit together without nails, in custom with the Javanese tradition. But once it stood complete with its original tiled roof, it was certainly worth it.

The home, made entirely of teak and richly decorated with intricate carvings throughout, is a little piece of the past that has been preserved thanks to the determination of the Vanns. That sense of preservation can be seen in other parts of the aviary and as Marilyn Vann explains, it's one of their great motivators.

"I would hope that people go home with a greater appreciation for all birds and realize that they are worth whatever effort it takes to protect and preserve them."

That means allowing people to get up close and personal with Australian Rainbow Lorikeets at feeding time. Visitors are asked to disinfect their hands before entering the caged area and given some simple instructions: don't pet the birds and don't reach out to them.

We're assured that they will come to us, but it's evident upon entry that those holding the lorikeet nectar, available for a twoonie (a two dollar Canadian coin) a cup, will attract the most birds.

If you're lucky, some will linger on a shoulder, after their snack-time, allowing for an amazing view of their multi-hued plumage.

Keeping in step with the ideal of preservation through instruction, the aviary also provides educational programs for all school grade levels so that children can learn about birds and their environment in an interactive way.

The Niagara Falls Aviary, Birds of the Lost Kingdom is located at 5651 River Road in Niagara Falls, right next to the Rainbow Bridge .

For more information: www.niagarafallsaviary.com

Travel writer A.P. Rodrigues can be contacted through R + R Creative