How a personal bird collection 80 years ago turned into the Tracy Aviary


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Editor's note:This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah history for KSL.com's Historic section.SALT LAKE CITY — On a scorching July morning, with smoke from a nearby wildfire dangling in the air, the daily bird show at the Tracy Aviary goes on.

An employee brings out all sorts of birds that buzz over the visitors' heads. This is followed by a chorus of “oohs and awes” from the crowd. There’s a toucan that hops along the outstretched arms of volunteers like they’re trees in the Amazon, a vulture that flies so low that each wing flap feels like the bird is fanning the crowd, and there’s even a crow with the ability to recycle water bottles.

A child standing outside a parrot and macaw exhibit not too far away from the bird show venue at this same time tries to get the birds to mimic his greeting. It takes a few attempts, but the parrot, a blue-and-yellow macaw, sheepishly musters a “hi.” The child appears amused, especially as the macaw’s response grows louder and louder.

Even on the 100-degree day, there’s someone pointing at another bird they’ve spotted with the same level of enjoyment and wonder they've enjoyed at every other exhibit at the aviary.

An employee holds a black vulture during a Tracy Aviary bird show on Friday, July 6, 2018. The Tracy Aviary is celebrating 80 years in 2018. (Photo: Carter Williams, KSL.com)
An employee holds a black vulture during a Tracy Aviary bird show on Friday, July 6, 2018. The Tracy Aviary is celebrating 80 years in 2018. (Photo: Carter Williams, KSL.com)

It’s exactly the vision Russell Tracy had for the aviary when he first opened it 80 years ago, Tracy Aviary President and CEO Tim Brown said.

“The aviary really connects people to nature, and we do that primarily through birds and just trying to show people how amazing birds are,” Brown said before he’s quickly interrupted by a loud yelp from a guira cuckoo bouncing around in a tree overhead.

“It’s through this collection of birds that we try to get people to step back (and think) ‘birds are super cool’ and then to notice birds in their own backyard," he added. "When we talk about connecting people through nature, we use Tracy Aviary as a launching for somebody’s conservation journey.”

The Tracy Aviary has 135 species and more than 400 birds from all over the world, but it all started with Tracy’s personal collection.

Building an aviary

When Mormon pioneers settled in the Salt Lake Valley, Isaac Chase constructed a mill on his farm where people could go view many of his animals, much like Wheeler Farm today.

The Isaac Chase Mill, which was built in 1852, still stands on the eastern end of the aviary but has since been renovated. It remains one of the oldest pioneer buildings in the state. The Chase home, which was built in 1856, also remains at Liberty Park.

The area later became Brigham Young’s farmland as a part of the southern-most border of the city.

In 1911, Salt Lake’s first zoo was built where the aviary now stands. It was relocated two decades later to its current spot near Emigration Canyon in 1932, freeing up the land.

At the same time, Tracy, a Salt Lake banker, had amassed a growing bird collection at his home in the Federal Heights neighborhood. In 1938, Tracy struck a deal with the city and donated his collection, which was to be placed in the southwest corner of Liberty Park in some of the leftover cages from the zoo.

As part of the deal, Tracy also provided some seed money and helped hire the aviary’s first superintendent, Calvin Wilson, according to Brown.

The initial aviary wasn’t just birds, either. It housed mammals for a while, including monkeys and kangaroos, and even had deer until the 1980s, Brown said. There was also once an aquarium with sea mammals for some time.

A girl feeds a monkey a banana at the Tracy Aviary on June 27, 1941. The aviary had mammals in it until the 1980s, when it became a bird-only exhibit. (Photo: Utah State History)
A girl feeds a monkey a banana at the Tracy Aviary on June 27, 1941. The aviary had mammals in it until the 1980s, when it became a bird-only exhibit. (Photo: Utah State History)

“His intent was to create something that was for the children — for the children’s enjoyment and entertainment,” Brown said. “Back then in 1938, I don’t think people were watching quite as much TV as they do today and I don’t think the internet was quite founded, right?

"Back then, having these animals on display was really super unique because you couldn’t just punch into your search engine some sort of deer or some sort of bird or whatever and have this video come up and learn all sorts of things about that animal.”

Building memories

As a part of its 80-year celebration, Tracy Aviary has posted letters written to them by people about their experiences with the aviary. Each story is written by someone reflecting on their childhood visits.

Kids feed ducks and geese at a pond in Tracy Aviary in May 1941. The aviary opened in 1938. (Photo: Utah State History)
Kids feed ducks and geese at a pond in Tracy Aviary in May 1941. The aviary opened in 1938. (Photo: Utah State History)

Calvin Wilson's daughter, Janeal, wrote about her memories watching her father work as the aviary's first superintendent. She wrote that her family lived in a house at the aviary.

"Daddy loved his job and enjoyed taking care of the birds and animals that were in the aviary," Janeal Wilson wrote. "When the weather was cold, raining, or super-hot, off he went with a feed bucket on his arm and a wheelbarrow full of greens to take care of his birds."

There's also a letter from Leslie, who recalls first visiting Liberty Park when she was 10 in the late 1950s. She'd hear a peacock making sounds from the aviary. David wrote about eating sack lunches with his father at the aviary.

80 years later

What started as a personal collection on display has grown into a worldwide operation. The aviary isn’t just a place to see birds; it’s also a place keeping endangered species from dying out elsewhere in the world. Brown said the aviary breeds these birds to possibly let back in their natural habitats in South and Central America.

A portion of each admission sale also goes toward conservation programs in Utah, elsewhere in the United States and even abroad.

While Brown described the origin of the aviary as a pre-internet place of learning, things have certainly shifted over the past decades. Now, people can access information about any bird they want, so the aviary adapted.

A king vulture flies over an audience during a Tracy Aviary bird show on Friday, July 6, 2018. The Tracy Aviary is celebrating 80 years in 2018. (Photo: Carter Williams, KSL.com)
A king vulture flies over an audience during a Tracy Aviary bird show on Friday, July 6, 2018. The Tracy Aviary is celebrating 80 years in 2018. (Photo: Carter Williams, KSL.com)

The aviary has a strong presence on social media and there are plenty of social events; however, the primary goal remains the same: It's about trying to build memories of nature through birds with a new generation.

The park has places to run around near the different bird exhibits and almost feels like a slice outdoors within the city.

“We’re just trying to get people to start paying attention to nature again,” Brown said. “And we’ll do that through birds or have people climb on rocks or climb on logs — connect them to nature.”

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.

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