Harewood House Bird Garden is a small part of a much larger Harewood House experience. The grounds of Harewood House are extensive and would merit a visit even if there wasn’t a bird garden.
To me, the bird garden seems like a sprawling collection of interesting curiosities cascading down a hillside between the house and the lake. If you are just after birds, then I might be so bold as to recommend the nearby Lotherton Wildlife Park. However, if you want a magnificent day out and love beautiful stately homes, then this is the place for you.
Harewood House Bird Garden History
Harewood House is a country house in Harewood, near Leeds, built in the mid to late 18th Century for Edwin Lascelles, the 1st Baron Harewood. The grounds are landscaped by Capability Brown and are extensive at 1,000 acres. I’m largely going to be speaking about the bird garden in this review, but I must take a moment to say that the landscape is stunning. I didn’t have time to investigate much further afield but I’m determined to go back with our little dog when the restrictions allow.
The bird garden was opened to the public in 1970 and appears to have gone from strength to strength. As a full member of BIAZA and a keen advocate of international breeding programmes, this isn’t just some small-fry aviary of parrots and cockatiels. In fact, it is so well developed that, for the last 20 years it has been one of the places where birds are held and rehabilitated after being confiscated from the illegal customs trade.
Harewood House Bird Garden Visitor Experience
Harewood house is very easy to get to and involves a nice drive through West Yorkshire countryside. Entering the estate through a magnificent set of stone gateposts, you follow the drive down until you get to the ticket booth. The cost is going to be around £40 for a family ticket (including parking). When compared to Lotherton’s £25 and Askham Bryan’s £22.50 this does feel a bit pricy, but you have to remember that the ticket coves all of Harewood House’s attractions, not just the birds.
I didn’t buy any food but I did spot that there was a café on the steps of the house where the view would have been fantastic. The toilets I visited were in the car park and left a little to be desired, but I might have found nicer ones further into the complex. Finding the bird garden was easy enough. There was a little queue waiting to get in but I think that was Covid related more than anything else.
The first thing I do when getting to a zoo is to plan my route. I like to see everything with as little duplication as possible but, after studying the map on the wall, I realised that duplication was the least of my worries. I don’t think there was a route that allowed me to see everything while sticking to the one-way guidelines. It seemed like a choice between condors (number 30 on the map below) and flamingos (number 10). You couldn’t see rheas (numbers 2 and 3) if you chose to see the diamond dove (number 26).
While I’m talking about signage I’ll mention the other thing I found frustrating… about one in every ten birds didn’t have a plaque. One of the key jobs of a zoo is to educate and inform and the easiest way to do this is by telling people what they are looking at.
Anyway, aside from the one way system and the signage I actually thought the visitor experience was largely great. The place has this feeling of rambling down a hill past some amazing birds with amazing views over and amazing landscape. It was clean & tidy, the staff were friendly and it wasn’t too busy. These smaller things can be overlooked but they do add a lot to the experience.
Harewood House Bird Garden Animal Collection
Harewood House Bird Garden has a lot of birds. This is an extensive collection from all over the world. You don’t have themed areas here, simply gem after unexpected gem of randomly placed birds. Often you get two or three species sharing the same aviary which gives interest at different levels in the exhibit: pheasants on the floor, pigeons in the trees, finches flitting round.
There is one key exhibit which shouldn’t be missed… the condor exhibit. These birds are huge. At the time of writing the condor from Lotherton Wildlife World has been moved to Harewood House in the hopes of a breeding success. These birds really benefit from a 3D aspect in their enclosure. A Harwood House this isn’t a problem as the (very large) enclosure is built on a steep hill. By using the landscape like this it is possible to give the birds what they need without resorting to the fake desert scenes you might encounter in other zoos.
I’d also recommend taking a look at the rheas (small South-American ostriches-esque birds). These are much less exciting than the vultures but it was the first time I’d ever seen a greater and lesser rhea side-by-side. The lesser rhea leaves up to its name by being a good foot shorter than the greater rhea.
Fun story time… The lesser rhea is also called Darwin’s rhea. When Darwin was on the second voyage of HMS Beagle he spent some time searching for this elusive bird with no success. In the end he did find one being prepared for lunch in his own camp having been mistaken for a juvenile greater rhea. It was quickly moved from the chopping board to the embalming board and preserved for transportation back to London.
Something else fun you could do while walking round would be some pheasant spotting. Harewood House as a particularly fine collection of around eight species with my particular favourites being the Himalayan monal-pheasant and blue-eared pheasant.
Before I move on from the highlights, I want to mention the very cheeky bird striated caracara. This falcon from the Falkland’s spent much of its time up at the front of the enclosure digging around in the plants to find bugs and grubs. It didn’t even seem to notice we were less than 1m away! What struck me was how natural it looked hopping around the Yorkshire foliage despite being 8,000 miles from home.
Harewood House Bird Garden Enclosure Quality
For me, the defining feature about most of the enclosures in Harewood House is that they were better for the birds than the guests.
On the whole, the enclosures seemed to be of a reasonable size with plenty of cover for the birds to hide in. The amount of cover was sometimes a drawback with overgrown shrubs obstructing parts of the view. This had the double effect of making it very easy for the birds to hide where I couldn’t see them. There is a balance to be had in any zoo between the privacy granted to the animal and the view afforded to the public. Harewood House certainly leans more towards animal privacy although, if you had to choose, this would be the right way to lean.
The only enclosure I didn’t like was the very first one you come to… the penguins. I know penguins need less space than you think, but this did seem like a very small space for birds which can be energetic in the water. It was a bit of a shame as it happens to be the very first enclosure you see as you enter the bird garden. It also isn’t an easy or cheap thing to change, especially given that water likes to be flat and this whole place is built on a hill. I have to stress I’m not a penguin expert and they may be having a great life but, from a visitor’s point of view, it just set the wrong first impression.
Interestingly, Askham Bryan Wildlife Park had the exact same issue where the very first impression was of dirty tanks, but the rest of the park was great. Even the great Yorkshire Wildlife Park give a shoddy first impression with some dirty porta-loos. First impressions matter!
Grumbles aside… the large flightless bird enclosures were very generous with their space and the standard enclosures were fine. In fact, you get a sense the keepers really care for their animals across the park with the extra objects placed in the enclosures for enrichment.
The enclosures do look a little dated, but I don’t think this detracts from the feel of Harewood House. Rather the contrary. It transports me to a bygone time when an eccentric Baron might stand on his terrace with a whisky and cigar watching the sun set over a stunning landscape listening to bird calls from all the continents of the world!
Harewood House Bird Garden Summary
If you just wanted to see birds, then I don’t think you’d be disappointed. You might feel a little short-changed compared to visiting Lotherton just down the road but you’d still have an interesting couple of hours.
If you consider Harewood House in its entirety (as you really should), then I think it is a fantastic day out. The grounds are beautiful, the house looks interesting and there is lots to do. You could spend all day here and still feel like you wanted to come back.