Sylvan Heights Bird Park and Avian Breeding Center, located in Scotland Neck, are recognized internationally for their contributions to waterfowl conservation, wetlands preservation, and avian education. Locally, they are a significant driver of economic development and an important resource for public schools in a region with limited opportunities.
At age 17, Mike Lubbock chanced upon an internship that would shape his life and have a profound effect upon the survival of waterfowl species around the world. From that beginning at England’s Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, Lubbock went on to become a renowned expert in waterfowl breeding and habitat conservation. He continually developed and improved waterfowl propagation techniques and conducted extensive field research expeditions in some of the world’s most remote natural habitats.
His work has resulted in 17 World First Breeding Awards, plus 16 awards for first breedings in North America, an unsurpassed accomplishment. Most important, he has focused on assuring the survival of species that are disappearing in the wild and of those in peril even in managed collections.
In 1984, Lubbock and his wife, Ali, moved from England to the United States, bringing with them 23 years of waterfowl expertise. Together, in the mountain town of Sylva, they founded Sylvan Heights Waterfowl, which they later moved to Scotland Neck and renamed the Sylvan Heights Avian Breeding Center. Their center came to encompass the most biologically significant collection of waterfowl in the world, supplying birds to zoos and aviaries around the globe. As it grew, so did interest from conservation organizations, educational institutions, and the local public. In 2003, under the guidance of the North Carolina Zoological Society, the Lubbocks began planning a bird park that would allow the public to enjoy and learn about birds and waterfowl without disturbing the important nesting birds at the Avian Breeding Center. Sylvan Heights Bird Park, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, opened in 2006.
Today, Sylvan Heights Bird Park welcomes over 40,000 visitors annually to a close-up experience with more than 2,000 ducks, geese, parrots, toucans, flamingoes, hornbills, and other birds from six continents. (Only Antarctica lacks representation.) The 18-acre facility features spacious, ADA-compliant walk-through aviaries, tranquil gardens, and raised boardwalks traversing lush natural wetlands. Next door, the Avian Breeding Center is home to over 170 species of birds – including over half of all known species of ducks, geese, and swans and more than 1,000 hatchlings each year. Together, the park and breeding center comprise the world’s largest waterfowl collection and the second largest bird collection in the United States. They have become an international center for aviculture research and education, a driver of conservation efforts worldwide, and a resource for public schools.
Working under the direction of the Lubbocks, the staff at Sylvan now includes Brad Hazelton, park general curator and a widely recognized flamingo expert; Nick Hill, curator of aviculture for the Avian Breeding Center, principal investigator on the white-winged duck project, and recipient of first breeding awards for several Psittacine (parrot) species; Dustin Foote, park assistant curator and research coordinator, and a doctoral student in biology at East Carolina University; plus other graduate-level biologists and zoologists, interns, education specialists, and administrative personnel. A number of staff and interns have gone on to high-level positions with other facilities, among them: Nathan Bawtinhimer, now eider specialist at the Alaska Sealife Center; James Balance, curator of birds at the Atlanta Zoo; Tim Snyder, curator of birds at the Brookfield Zoo; Jamie Ries, bird supervisor at the Minnesota Zoo; and Doug Piekarz, director of the Akron Zoo.
A 12-member board of directors provides leadership and ongoing oversight for the park’s operation and development. Don Butler of Clinton has been a member of that board for several years and has served as its chairman for the last three years. He and his wife Ann, who frequently volunteers at Sylvan, are avid supporters of both the birds and the park.
With a variety of leadership skills and experiences, the board meets a minimum of four times a year to review budgets, evaluate ongoing programs, and discuss the potential of new programs. The park operates as a nonprofit, and it is up to the board to promote and organize new capital projects and fundraising.
In addition, more than 160 volunteers contribute over 11,000 hours of service each year. They greet visitors, operate the interactive Landing Zone exhibit, provide upkeep and maintenance for the grounds and buildings, and assist with special programming.
Through its aviaries, displays, and literature, Sylvan Heights Bird Park creates an educational opportunity in the importance of waterfowl, wildlife, and wetlands conservation for visitors of all ages. Monthly curator talks and daily onsite keeper talks in the aviaries add depth to the experience for interested visitors. In addition, special educational programs target key audiences.
Sylvan has become an important partner for STEM education. In 2015, more than 7,000 students from 24 North Carolina counties and 4 Virginia counties participated in Sylvan Heights field trips with hands-on programming in bird biology and wetlands ecology. These programs meet both Common Core and state standards. Through outreach programs, Sylvan reached nearly 3,000 additional students in their classrooms. Saturday programs for young children, overnight camps for youth, and summer day camps for ages 4 to 10 provide additional enrichment opportunities.
Post-secondary and professional development. Sylvan’s avian husbandry internship program has provided hands-on training for nearly 500 next-generation aviculturists and conservationists. Participants have come from renowned zoological facilities in the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, India, Singapore, Brazil, Chile, and other foreign countries, as well as throughout the United States. College interns have included students from Cornell University, East Carolina University, North Carolina State University, N.C. Wesleyan College, Wright State University, Ohio University, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute. In 2016, the four-day, inaugural Future of Waterfowl Conservation Workshop attracted 70 delegates – early career aviculturist and zookeepeers from around the world – for updates on important waterfowl conservation projects and discussions of captive propagation techniques, avian veterinary practices, and public educational programming. In addition, several local colleges and universities – among them, North Carolina State University, Nash Community College, East Carolina University, and North Carolina Wesleyan College – have classes that incorporate the park’s diverse collection, engaging students outside the classroom.
Research and conservation
The Sylvan Heights Avian Breeding Center is home to breeding populations of some of the world’s rarest waterfowl. In some cases, fewer than 250 individuals of these species remain in the wild, and collaborative captive breeding programs taking place at Sylvan Heights and in other avicultural institutions may be their last barrier against extinction.
Sylvan’s research and conservation efforts encompass protection and re-introduction projects in the birds’ native habitat as well as captive breeding. These projects address habit loss and other environmental challenges to reproductive success, the evolutionary adaptations of birds in restricted ranges, the need for adequate genetic diversity in populations, and adverse human activity such as overhunting, among other topics. The attached Addendum shows examples of conservation projects where Sylvan Heights has deployed its unique leadership capabilities. Sylvan also has cooperated with outside researchers investigating such issues as the human immunodeficiency virus, flight patterns of bar-headed geese over the Himalayan Mountains, and the metabolic and skeletal differences between wild and domesticated geese.
Partnerships strengthen and sustain the impact of Sylvan Heights. Work with zoos, public and private aviaries, research universities, individual scientists, and governments is an integral part of Sylvan’s research and conservation mission. The addendum highlights some of these projects.
In an ongoing partnership, Sylvan Heights serves as the headquarters of the International Wild Waterfowl Association. Established in 1958, the association is a group of private aviculturists, students, researchers, conservationists, educators, zoological professionals, and waterfowl enthusiasts dedicated to preserving all 234 taxa of wild waterfowl. It funds many conservation projects and internships.