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100-Plus Things: Bird Kingdom in Niagara Falls, Ont.

Bird Kingdom, in Niagara Falls, Ont., looks like just another tourist attraction. It is not.

It is the most fanciful thing this side of fiction.

You might find yourself high in the middle of a giant rain forest, inches from two serene, Victoria Crowned Pigeons, with no glass between you. Named for Queen Victoria, they are giant blue birds, round as a globe, with extravagant plumed crests.

You might also glimpse, strolling around, Lady Amherst's Pheasant. With its long tail and wild patterns, it looks like something dreamed up by Edward Lear.

Keeper Matt Killby asks Ray, a green-winged macaw, to give him a high five in Animal Encounters room, where visitors can touch and hold the exotic creatures from the rainforest. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

You have the option of being swarmed by lorikeets. Hold a cup of nectar, and these rainbow-hued Australian birds light all over you, all aflutter and atwitter. Now there is something to tweet about.

Bird Kingdom is the world's largest free-flying indoor aviary. It is home to 4,000 species, with birds from Australia, South America and Africa, including exotic winged creatures you could not dream up.

History lives there, too.

The building was the first poured concrete building in Canada, home to the Spirella Corset Factory. In the 1950s, it became the home of the Niagara Falls Museum -- the oldest museum in Canada, dating to 1827.

The museum's most famous resident was Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses I. The pharaoh went back to Egypt in 2003, after his mummy had finally been identified. But the mummy spent almost 150 years in Niagara Falls, including 40 years in this building.

Heather Williams of Toronto engages with Gabriel Roda, left, who's having a blast. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Bird Kingdom, which has occupied this fabled space since 2003, respects these roots.

Entering the attraction is rather disorienting. There's musty aroma, of old wooden floors. You enter a hall of old photographs of Falls history and derring-do, left over from the museum. One photo shows employees of the corset factory, formally posed.

Even after you get into the aviary, you'll find occasional reminders that something else was here first. But the farther you get into the place, the better it gets.

Rounding a corner, you behold a dozen bright parrots, with plumes of scarlet, chartreuse and Play-Doh blue, all settled on perches and looking at you. Bird Kingdom has a kind of Egyptian Lost Kingdom theme, to amuse the kids, and this room is Explorer's Base Camp.

Vinny, the Victoria Crowned Pigeon, struts around. It is the largest species of pigeon. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

What a treat to hold a big parrot as if you were a pirate. You realize how heavy they are -- and how smart.

"Stick out your tongue!" requested keeper Steve Bush. The bird did so, cackling.

"Spread your wings!" The sight was stunning.

"Bow!" The bird bowed, squawking solemnly: "Bow."

Nearby is Dundee, a loud Laughing Kookaburra from Australia. The keepers make a trilling sound, and the bird laughs and laughs.

Dundee, a Laughing Kookaburra, releases a loud, laugh-like call in the Animal Encounters room, where visitors can touch and hold the exotic creatures. Dundee, usually responds only to the voices he knows. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

There's a Night Jungle, where you can watching nocturnal critters - skunks, bats, etc. - going about their business. But the place is really for the birds, and the birds seem to know that.

Up another level is the airy Small Aviary. It has a genteel, Victorian feel. Exotic foreign forms of finches, sparrows, and canaries flit among the vegetation, darting here, there and everywhere. They flutter right past you, sometimes so close you feel the air moving. They chirp right in your ear.

There's a bench where you can sit, feeling like the bird lady from "Mary Poppins." A zebra finch, a Forbes finch, an elegant Java Sparrow -- pictures can help identify them, and it's tempting to linger all day.

But the great aviary, up yet another level, beckoned.

Opening the doors, we stood agog.

We were in a vast jungle, with a skylight and a stunning view of the Niagara Gorge. In keeping with the Lost Kingdom theme, there were poetic ruins, and a shimmering waterfall. A flock of Scarlet Ibis soared overhead. A Silver Pheasant, dignified and bright, strolled far below.

Green and yellow Double Headed Amazons shared a tree with smaller, equally garish parrots. All were donated former pets, said keeper Matt Killby.

"You get strange pairs," he said. "For instance, the crow and the hornbill hang out together. Maybe it's because they look alike." The Pied Crow, from Africa, looks like a bird in black tie. The Silvery-Cheeked Hornbill is glossy black with a huge beak.

The silvery-cheeked hornbill stays quietly tucked behind a tree. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

They squawk the squawk. You walk the walk. The path leads behind the waterfall, then up so you are at eye level with a row of motionless macaws, or down so you may mingle on the ground floor with the rotund, riotously colored pigeons.

Set back in the greenery on the other side of the panorama is a genuine 19th century Javanese nobleman's house, carved from teak wood, painstakingly moved, and reassembled. It is the only one in North America, and one of the few in the world.

Too bad Ramses had to go home to Egypt. He would enjoy this grandeur. Rob Cairns of Toronto was enjoying it. Like the pair of us from The News, he was there for the first time.

"I come to Niagara Falls three or four times a year," he said. "People don't look at what's right in our own back yard."

And ours, too.

To think this unique, absurd world is just 17 miles from Buffalo - as the crow flies, and is there any other way to measure it? When you hear the laugh of the kookaburra, or the caw of the macaw, you can answer the call. You don't have to think about it.

Bird Kingdom in Niagara Falls, Ont., boasts the world's largest indoor aviary. It's open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Email: mkunz@buffnews.com

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