Your kids may already be fans of Rio or perhaps they just love anything that flies (birds, airplanes, superheroes — you name it). Feed two birds with one visit (well, at least one visit) to the Free Flight Exotic Bird Sanctuary where you’ll have the chance to feed exotic birds in the picturesque tropical grounds. This hidden gem is tucked on the south side of the Del Mar Fairgrounds as you head into Del Mar Village and it’s open seven days a week, making it the perfect escape for little bird lovers at heart.

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The Aviary
When you step into the peaceful, lush grounds of Free Flight filled with bird-safe plants and trees, you’ll find birds of varying colors and sizes all around you perched on tree limbs while others are resting in cages. You’ll meet Bam Bam (a blue and gold macaw); Chole (a Leadbeater cockatoo); and Mandy (an Alexandrian parrot) to just name a few from the cast of characters.FREE FLIGHT EXOTIC BIRD - 6

All of these birds (who were donated and/or rescued) have the late Dr. Robert (a.k.a, “Dr. Bob”) Stonebreaker to thank for their pristine living conditions. Dr. Bob founded this tropical bird garden in 1981 as a boarding and breeding facility, and overtime it became a unique aviary where visitors of all ages have the opportunity to interact with rare exotic birds. Since 2009, Free Flight has been a non-profit with the mission to provide shelter and re-socialize former exotic bird pets while raising public appreciation and awareness of endangered or threatened exotic birds as well as conservation.

The Free Flight docents play an important role, greeting visitors on arrival and helping orient them to the aviary. The docents will direct you to which birds welcome head scratches and provide you with a detailed history of each bird’s background, from their name to all about their species in addition to some general exotic bird factoids. Such as, exotic birds have the emotional intelligence of a two-year-old and many can live up to 80 years. And, since these exotic birds are social by nature, it’s important that they are stimulated daily not only by their caretakers but also by different visitors.  This interaction helps the birds lessen any fear-based aggression.

It should be noted that children must be accompanied and supervised by adults at all times. Also, kids are not permitted to run throughout the aviary because it be upsetting to some of the birds.FREE FLIGHT EXOTIC BIRD -2

Bird Feed
The best way to get acquainted with the Free Flight birds is by feeding them. While you can’t give Polly a cracker or smuggle treats in from home to feed the birds, you can purchase a fresh produce mix to feed them in a bowl.

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Some birds are very social and depending on your comfort level, you are permitted to handle them. Most birds are content by just you talking to them, admiring their beauty and, of course, raising a food bowl in their direction.

Another highlight is the beautiful Koi pond with a small bridge. Koi food is also available for purchase. The bright orange, yellow, and red fish definitely keep the younger kids intrigued. After interacting with the birds and Koi, there are also benches to just sit and soak in the beauty of the sanctuary.FREE FLIGHT EXOTIC BIRD - 4

Birds of a Feather Flock Together: Adoption Program
Many exotic birds end up needing a new home because their owners don’t realize the expense and time required to properly care for an exotic bird. Free Flight takes ex-pet birds under their wing due to a change in the owner’s situation and rehabilitates them in their free flying, outdoor environment.

Once the birds are re-socialized, Free Flight offers them up for adoption. Visitors can choose among the birds to adopt.  Due to the concern for the future welfare of the bird, potential adopters, however, must meet Free Flight’s criteria and be deemed a match. If Free Flight determines that a particular bird is unable to be adopted, the bird will stay at Free Flight to live out its life. Over the years, Free Flight has placed 155 birds in “Forever Homes” with only three adoption returns.

If adopting a bird is not in the picture, Free Flight also welcomes visitors to sponsor a particular bird that they have become fond of during their visit.

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Free Flight Exotic Bird Sanctuary
2132 Jimmy Durante Blvd.
Del Mar, Ca  92014
Online:  freeflightbirds.org

Hours: Open daily 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., except Wednesday 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. If there’s inclement weather (either too hot or cool), be sure to call in advance to learn if the birds are out.

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Admission: $5 per adult; $2 per kiddo under 13. There’s also a membership program available for frequent visitors and group tours, for Girls Scout troops, playgroups and the like, can be arranged with advanced notice.

Have you been to this cool exotic bird sanctuary? What’s your favorite bird to watch?

Written and photographed by Christina Q. Cross