In Search of Pink Floyd

Salt Lake City's Tracy Aviary

If you are lucky, some day when you are tooling along the south shore of Great Salt Lake you might catch a glimpse of Pink Floyd.

Pink Floyd will be easy to spot not because of his rock-star hair and chain-smoking habit but instead because his body is a shock of bright pink feathers.

I'll allow that this world is big enough for two Pink Floyds - there is the one that helped tear down The Wall, and another who stands about three feet tall and often on just one leg: the Pink Floyd who lives in the Great Salt Lake is truly a bird - a flamingo.

Utah's Pink Floyd is an escapee from a local zoo who flew the coop and settled down in the briny shores of the West's greatest lake. Far from a suitable mate, of course, Pink Floyd seems to have made friends with the ibis, herons and black-necked stilts who like the salty water.

Honestly, I have never seen either Pink Floyd, but when I look at the Great Salt Lake and imagine seeing Utah's Pink Floyd I am also reminded of a morning several years ago at Lake Nakuru National Park in Kenya, when I drove through the dark misty morning to emerge at a lake shore bounded by millions and millions of pink flamingos, flamingos beyond number.

Both Lake Nakuru and Pink Floyd harken, in a smaller way, to Salt Lake City's great Tracy Aviary, a mid-town oasis amid the tall trees of Liberty Park which serves as home to hundreds of birds from around the world. Just blocks from busy streets, the aviary is a one-step-at-a-time voyage around the globe.

Entrance to the aviary is just $3, with programs and tours going on most of the day; there is also a children's park, bird feedings and dramatic live shows.

Once in the aviary, narrow paths wind among tall trees and clusters of bird homes (homes? You know what I mean), which are interspersed with ponds and parks.

Among the aviary's most interesting birds, I'd say, are the male and female king vultures - huge birds that in the wild seek out carrion (the bulk of their diet) using their keen sense of smell. When we were there the birds were playing or fighting over two huge raw steaks; they are brilliantly colored, and look as though they were literally dipped in ink.

Not far from the vultures are the Andean condors, which weigh 20 pounds and have a ten-foot wingspan. Nearby are also the Demoiselle cranes, which migrate over the Himalayas each year, flying more than 26,000 feet high at one point. They can live to be 80 years old.

Another of my favorite birds were the hornbills - another huge species of birds that have this odd appendage on the top of their beaks: it looks like a fossilized banana has been glued upside down on the nose. The bill allows the birds to do things like hit their heads on rocks - you know, to attract the chicks. The horn, actually, is keratin-filled and not unlike a human fingernail. To further attract the women, the male will gather food to show the female that he can take care of her while she sits on her eggs.

One of the great things about the aviary is that the staff has written these intriguing little stories about each bird - sometimes it is an explanation of a curious biological function, other times it is to tell a funny story about their behavior. Here is an example: the plaque in front of the grey crane says that the birds, which have brilliantly-colored faces and gold tinsel-like hair erupting from their heads (and today can be found in south-central Africa) carried to safety a king lost in the desert. To show his thanks, the king gave each crane a crown. When the crowns attracted too much attention, the king changed it to golden feathers instead.

The 'laugh' of the laughing kookaburra, meanwhile, is used in Hollywood movies as a substitute for jungle sounds (even though they live in the Australian Outback). The scarlet ibis wins its color from pigment in the food it eats. An Iroquois legend says that the birds originally did not have feathers, so the turkey vulture, a high and graceful flier, went to the spot where the gods hid the birds' feathers. Then, when the vulture returned, he gave the brightest feathers to all his friends and kept the leftovers for himself.

Isn't that just the sort of thing a turkey vulture would do? Last year while on helping to count migratory birds for HawkWatch International, I got to see these rare birds at fairly close range. They look like they have better things to do than worry about what color their feathers are.

That's OK, there's a place for that in the bird world, like there is a place for everything else, like the emu that has to throw water down its long throat to swallow, or the small hornbill that ran side to side in his room like a dog patrols his front yard. And over kind of in the back of the aviary is a shallow pond home to a half-dozen flamingos - the place where Pink Floyd would have lived had he not seen the size and opportunity in the world. I sat there for a while as the afternoon cooled, just watching the birds, and thinking how they had all the colors of the world inside them.

The Tracy Aviary is entered from 600 East, 1300 South in Salt Lake City.

Check out this week's photo gallery.

Jeff's Bio

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