Is National Aviary Haunted?

National Aviary

Could phantoms of prisoners and Confederate soldiers haunt the halls of the National Aviary?

Paranormal Activity at
the National Aviary

  • Feelings of being watched have been reported
  • Apparitions of Civil War soldiers are seen wandering the halls
  • Phantom footsteps have been heard
  • Electronics have been seen being turned on by unseen forces

National Aviary &
Western State Penitentiary

In the heart of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Commons Park sits a sprawling, modern complex: the National Aviary. Pittsburgh’s National Aviary is the country’s only independent zoo for birds and is home to hundreds from around the world.

But, the property now known for the sights and sounds of exotic birds has a history that reaches far beyond the Aviary.

The site used to be home to Pittsburgh’s Western State Penitentiary, though it may not seem like it.

Some say the best signs to look out for are the apparitions the prison left behind. These ghosts supposedly still linger in the halls of the National Aviary, years after the prison’s demolition.

Timeline of National Aviary's History

Swipe or use timeline points to see National Aviary through the years


In the early 1820s, the Pittsburgh region developed quickly and soon needed a large prison system. As the area’s population swelled by the thousands, Western State Penitentiary sprouted up in nearby Allegheny City.

The community quickly put the new prison to work when it opened in 1826, filling it with droves of Pittsburgh’s criminals. Western State was built in tandem with Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, which opened its doors a few years later.


Though it served as Pittsburgh’s prison for much of the 19th century, Western State is best known for its role in the Civil War. After the Confederate’s Morgan Raid in 1863, over 100 Confederate soldiers were captured and sent to Western State as prisoners of war.

Over their time imprisoned in Pittsburgh, several of the Confederate POWs died in captivity. At least one is reported to have died attempting to escape. After the war, Western State resumed regular prison duty.


In 1880, Western State Penitentiary’s original grounds were demolished. A few blocks away, a new prison bearing the same name had been constructed. This new prison would serve Pittsburgh into the 21st century. But, the old prison site had a much different future ahead of it.

The Allegheny Commons park had existed around the prison for years before the prison’s demolition. Soon, the prison site became integrated into the park. It wasn’t long before all physical signs of Western State’s existence faded.


In 1952, the old prison site got a new lease on life with the construction of the National Aviary. The expansive indoor bird zoo opened that year to great fanfare and has been a fixture of Allegheny Commons ever since.

Some say that, despite the changes, the site hasn’t forgotten its past of imprisonment. Amongst the birds and exhibits, tales of ghosts of Confederate soldiers linger through the National Aviary to this day.

Do Civil War Spirits Roam the Aviary?

Despite the Aviary’s five decades as a prison, many of the ghost stories seem to focus on the Civil War era. While records are more sparse on death rates during Western State’s entire on-site operation, it is thought that at least eight POWs died in the prison’s walls.

The question of who exactly haunts the Aviary remains unanswered. But, to some, the ghostly happenings in the building are undeniable.

Apparitions Walk Among the Birds

The most common ghost stories around the National Aviary tell of wandering apparitions. While the details of these apparitions vary, witnesses can often identify them by Confederate Civil War uniforms.

These misty war-time apparitions are commonly spotted wandering through the corridors of the Aviary. Perhaps they just want to see the exhibits without the crowds, or maybe they’re still traversing their old lives in the prison?

The Aviary’s After-Hours Hauntings

As many people come and go from the Aviary each day, it is often after-hours employees who report encounters with the building’s Civil War spirits.

No one knows if this is due to the spirits preferring the nighttime hours, or whether they’re getting lost in the crowds of tourists and not being noticed.

Due to the generally high volume of the Aviary’s hundreds of birds, visual reports are the most common ghostly encounters there.

But, if you’re lucky, you might hear something spooky too.

Bird Songs & Spirit Voices

They say encountering a ghost is all about the right place and the right time, and at the National Aviary, that’s especially true. If you happen to be in a quiet corridor at the right time, you might hear the phantom footsteps of the Confederate ghosts making their rounds through the halls.

Some people have reported hearing loud, unexplained bangs in certain areas. You may even have the sensation of being watched or followed. In one instance, a worker reportedly witnessed a radio turn on and off by itself.

Ghostly Mysteries at
the National Aviary

While you’re not likely to find a ghost tour at the National Aviary, nor are you able to book a ghost hunt there, you can tour the spaces and exhibits with ease. Plenty of people pass through to see the different types of birds every day. Perhaps a few ghostly Civil War POWs are even joining them.

If you go through the Aviary, those Confederate ghosts might just end up lingering right beside you, taking in the exhibits.

Maybe, after all these years, the ghosts of these long-lost soldiers have realized war is for the birds.