The National Aviary’s origins stretch back to 1952 when the city of Pittsburgh built the Pittsburgh Aviary-Conservatory on the site of a former conservatory in Allegheny Commons West Park.

The initial modest structure of just 3,640 square feet grew over the years to house an increasingly diverse bird collection.

By 1991, with Pittsburgh’s declining tax base, the city could no longer afford to operate the Aviary. That’s when concerned residents formed the nonprofit “Save the Aviary Inc.” to take over operations.

One of the Aviary’s most prominent and yet least celebrated donors was late philanthropist Cordelia Scaife May.

Born into the Mellon-Scaife family, one of the wealthiest families in the United States, May inherited a significant portion of the family fortune. This financial independence allowed her to pursue her philanthropic interests throughout her life.

She was the founder of Colcom Foundation, which continues to support environmental research and advocacy initiatives.

May was incredibly well-read across diverse subjects, from literature to science. Her intellectual curiosity fed her abundant knowledge of flora, fauna, and ecosystems around the world.

She was deeply concerned about conservation and sustainability under threat and dedicated her life and her vast wealth to supporting conservationist causes.

A lover of the natural world, May took immense pleasure in the beauty of the environment around her western Pennsylvania home. She found joy in discussing the wonders of nature with friends over lively conversation and humor.

May also had a great devotion to supporting the Pittsburgh region. Her quiet yet munificent grants to cultural, educational, and conservation organizations enabled them to thrive.

Although notoriously private, her caring spirit shone through her anonymous generosity.

One of the biggest beneficiaries of May’s quiet generosity was the National Aviary.

After privatization, May served as a guardian angel for the reinvented National Aviary. Her substantial yet quiet grants enabled major infrastructure upgrades and exhibit expansions over the years.

Linda Dickerson, National Aviary chief executive officer, said of May in an interview, “Mrs. Cordelia Scaife May had a great passion for Pittsburgh and for the environment, and through Colcom Foundation was a long-standing supporter of the National Aviary’s conservation, education and avian care programs.”

After May passed away in 2005, Colcom Foundation continued to support the avians May had such a passion for.

In 2007, the National Aviary in Pittsburgh received a $1 million boost to its capital campaign, courtesy of Colcom Foundation. This wasn’t just any grant; it was a pivotal step towards realizing a groundbreaking vision: the construction of the first-of-its-kind indoor theater for free-flight bird presentations.

Fast forward to 2024, and the impact of that 2007 grant transcends mere numbers. The theater, aptly named the “Theater of Wings,” has soared beyond expectations. Gone are the days of weather-dependent bird shows. The Theater of Wings offers a year-round, immersive experience, allowing visitors to witness birds in flight at eye level, fostering a deeper connection with these feathered marvels.

Colcom Foundation’s grant, fueled by the passion of the late Cordelia Scaife May, stands as a testament to the enduring power of philanthropy.

Her commitment to Pittsburgh, the environment, and the National Aviary continues to resonate through the lives touched by the Theater of Wings and other donations to the Aviary.

Beyond the confines of time, the lasting impact of her work, driven by a deep love for Pittsburgh and a genuine concern for our environment, continues to bear fruit.

The National Aviary, with its vibrant community and thriving avian residents, stands as a living tribute to her philanthropic legacy.

The future looks bright for the Aviary, its feathered residents, and the communities it serves thanks, in part, to the legacy of Cordelia Scaife May.