Thanksgiving at the NC Zoo

An endangered Bali Mynah

An endangered Bali Mynah

For many citizens of the US, Thanksgiving Day is about feasting with family, and perhaps counting up blessings. That’s great; it’s harder than ever for many to get multiple generations of kin in the same place for any length of time, and if food is the motivation that accomplishes this objective, so be it.

Unidentified Tropical Flower

Over the last 15 years or so, Wonder Spouse and I have observed a different Thanksgiving Day tradition: we visit the North Carolina Zoo. I know that some lovers of the animal kingdom despise zoos, and I understand those feelings. But the NC Zoo is one of the finest examples of what a zoo can be here in the US, and I would argue that its benefits outweigh any misgivings about maintaining wild animals in captivity. Plus, there are the plants. Let me explain.

Cacao pod growing in the aviary

Cacao pod growing in the aviary

In 2009, I was lucky enough to get a behind-the-scenes horticulture tour at the NC Zoo. I saw their greenhouses, learned about the extensive efforts the horticulture staff makes to find and propagate plants native to the regions of the animals, and learned about their ever-expanding programs to preserve and protect rare plant communities on the many acres of land they manage in North Carolina. I think they do an amazing job, and every area of the NC Zoo — from the sides of walkways, to exhibits, to play areas for children — is adorned with beautiful plants.

R.J. Reynolds Forest Aviary

Every year with decent weather, Wonder Spouse and I rise early and drive to Asheboro, where the NC Zoo is located, timing our arrival for when the doors are just opening at 9:00 a.m. A short hike takes us to our objective — the aviary — just as it opens up around 9:30 a.m. Most years, we have this magnificent place to ourselves — except for the keeper — for at least an hour. This year, we were undisturbed for over two hours.

Paradise Tanager

Paradise Tanager

The chill late-November air disappeared as we stepped into the humid warmth of a tropical paradise. Imagine towering leafy trees, blooming bromeliads and orchids, the sound of water gently trickling through a constructed stream, where water birds dabble happily, appearing and disappearing as they move beneath tropical foliage. Everywhere there are birds — flying through the trees — calling raucously or melodically, depending on species. The aviary is their little corner of paradise, and they thrive here, as do the tropical plants.


Wonder Spouse and I begin our NC Zoo visit at the aviary for two reasons. First, we love having the place to ourselves. Boisterous children inhibit bird behavior. The feathered ones are still relaxed when we arrive. Second, the keeper feeds the birds first thing every morning. This Thanksgiving Day, she was a little behind schedule. Wonder Spouse and I were already in the aviary and wandering around when she arrived with her many bowls and cages (for the live crickets) of bird goodies.

Blue-grey Tanager and Blue-crowned-hanging Parrot enjoying their breakfast.

Blue-grey Tanager and Blue-crowned-hanging Parrot enjoying their breakfast.

Because Wonder Spouse and I were the only humans wandering about, the hungry birds assumed we must have their breakfasts. I felt like Snow White in the Disney movie, when all the creatures of the forest surround her as she sings to them. I have never seen so many of these beautiful birds so closely in all my years of visits.

A pair of Crested Wood Partridges followed me everywhere, muttering softly in tiny voices.

A pair of Crested Wood Partridges followed me everywhere, muttering softly in tiny voices.

In case you’re wondering, Wonder Spouse took all these photographs of our NC Zoo visit. I shrank them some to minimize loading times, but you can click on any of the images to enlarge them. I recommend this, so you can appreciate Wonder Spouse’s skill with the camera — and the exquisite beauty of these birds.

I think the best time to visit the aviary is winter. The humid warmth of this glassed-in tropical paradise feels heavenly on a bitter January morning. The NC Zoo is usually far less crowded during the winter. Most school groups tour during warmer months. When the crowds are smaller, the knowledgeable keepers are happy to answer questions and share stories about their charges.

For example, the aviary keeper we chatted with on Thanksgiving showed us how she had taught this Crested Coua to emerge at a specific spot in return for special treats. This allows her to inspect the bird more closely without having to catch it.

After we’d had our fill of the aviary, we walked through the rest of the African continent display. Wonder Spouse took many great photographs. He has a soft spot for the lion family currently residing at the NC Zoo. The four cubs were born last year and have grown from adorable kittens to magnificent cats.


We have been avid supporters of the NC Zoo for decades. Their conservation and research work in the native lands of these animals is critical to the preservation of remaining populations. I believe that work, plus the educational opportunities provided by this institution among beautiful, multi-hundred-acres of rolling piedmont trail-crossed hills makes this institution worthy of every North Carolinian’s support. Tax-deductible contributions are critical to the well-being of this state treasure.

If you don’t live in NC but plan to visit, I encourage you to add the NC Zoo to your itinerary. If you do live in NC, but you haven’t visited, or you haven’t visited lately, I encourage you to rectify that oversight soon. Visit their Web site to learn more about their exhibits and conservation work.

Lend the NC Zoo a helping hand.

Female gorilla hand

Female gorilla hand

Consider donating to protect the future of wild ones everywhere.

Juvenile gorilla

Juvenile gorilla

2019 UPDATE: I have been informed that the NC Zoo will no longer be open on Thanksgiving Day, so that employees may spend the holiday with their families. They will still be open the day after Thanksgiving.

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