Washington D.C.

Washington, D.C, the capital of the United States, is often associated with two animals – donkeys and elephants - the symbols of the two main political parties – Democrats and Republicans.  However, there are many more animals that live within D.C. who make this city a rich wildlife treasure. A trip to connect with nature usually involves traveling outside a town or city but sometimes the wild world found in the concrete jungle can be just as remarkable and surprising.  Washington, D.C. is bursting at the seams with wildlife and natural experiences. With 23 national parks and nearly 25% of D.C.'s land dedicated to open spaces such as parks, Washington averages nearly 13 acres of parkland for every 1,000 city residents and is the highest ratio of any city in the United States.  Despite its rather small geographic area at only 69 square miles (178 km²), the city provides habitat for over 700 species of birds, fish, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.  Arkive's WildD.C. features the unique wildlife, stories, facts and conservation challenges in this area.  It shows another side of the city that students, families, and eco-tourists alike can enjoy.  Most importantly, it serves as a reminder that the urban wild can hold some of Earth’s most special natural wonders.


While the occasional flying bird or insect can be seen from a lofty 8th story office, the best way to experience the wilds of D.C. is on foot throughout the capital. Here are some of the best strolls for sightings of the native species that call the District of Columbia home.

1 mile – Kingman & Heritage Islands

Birds of prey abound on this island oasis in the Anacostia River; particularly Osprey and the iconic American bald eagle which has begun establishing populations on more than 50 acres of natural habitat. Egrets and blue heron along with nearly 100 other species of birds found in and around Kingman & Heritage Islands make this one of the premier bird-watching spots in the capital region without having to walk long distances.

2 miles – Tidal Basin walk

A visit to Washington D.C. would certainly be incomplete without a stroll around the Tidal Basin. Famous for the Japanese cherry blossoms that adorn the rim during the spring, the Tidal Basin is a spectacular spot for catching sight of aquatic species such as ducks, fish and even American beavers. A walk starting at Independence Ave and 17th street and continuing right will include famous D.C. memorial sites such as the World War II Memorial and the Martin Luther King Memorial.  

5 miles – West Ridge Trail at Rock Creek Park

Rock Creek Park is a large, woodsy retreat in Washington D.C. replete with enough plants and animals to keep your natural side engaged for hours. Of particular interest is the return of Coyotes to Rock Creek who had seemingly abandoned the city decades ago.  The West Ridge Trail provides one of the best opportunities for seeing many of the unique wildlife in the park and, at twice the size of New York’s Central Park, there are no shortage of viewing opportunities.

18 miles - The Mount Vernon Trail

The Mount Vernon Trail is a 18-mile paved multi-use trail that stretches from George Washington's Mount Vernon estate to Theodore Roosevelt Island.  Part of the 7,374 acres George Washington Parkway, the Mount Vernon Trail is home to at least 81 plants and animals marked as rare, threatened, or endangered in Virginia or Maryland. More common species can be readily observed such as white-tailed deer and shy box turtles.


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Vultures in the Nation’s Capital?

Some might say that vultures in Washington, D.C. aren’t unusual, but when the vultures are actually of the bird variety, the story gets interesting. Two American black vultures (Coragyps atratus), normally found in far more wooded environments outside the city limits, have taken up roost within the capital. Scientists speculate that growing population of small mammals within the city are enough to sustain this breeding pair whose wingspan of 5 feet each makes for an impressive sight when swooping through the heavily-trafficked streets. It is unknown how long the birds will remain in the capital but, with a gathering of vultures referred to as a committee, they are sure to find themselves welcome in Washington D.C.

Washington D.C. - Home to one of the world’s most endangered crustaceans

Can a tiny shrimp-like creature play a big role in city decision-making such as where to build the next branch of the subway system? In Washington, D.C., it can! Known as the Hay’s Spring amphipod (Stygobromus hayi), this small creature is known to exist only in five springs all along urban Rock Cree Park, some of which are directly in the path of the state of Maryland transit plans for an extension of the Washington D.C. metro system into Maryland. The Hay’s Spring amphipod was first sighted in 1938 on the grounds of the National Zoological Park and was granted federal endangered status in 1982. Time will tell if the little crustacean carries enough gravitas to thwart these pending transit plans which are scheduled to be complete by 2020. 

American bison once roamed the National Mall

Can you imagine strolling down the National Mall - from the Washington Monument toward the U.S. Capitol building - and stumbling upon a small herd of American bison? Visitors to the capital could do just that back at the turn of the century when the Smithsonian Institution housed a collection of live animals on the nation’s “front yard”. Populations of American bison (Bison bison) historically stretched across the Great Plains and had the largest natural range of any North American herbivore. Today, their populations occupy less than one percent of their original range.


The Snakehead Invader

The rather intimidating-looking northern snakehead, native to Asia, was introduced accidentally and, in some case, intentionally, to rivers, lakes and streams around Washington, D.C. A highly adaptable species with a large range, the snakehead was easily able to establish a breeding population, especially in waters leading to the state of Virginia.  A voracious predator, the snakehead feasts on native fishes, crustaceans and amphibians, often outcompeting local fish including largemouth bass.  Dubbed the not-so-affectionate title of “Frankenfish”, D.C. locals have found a new way to battle this species invading Washington’s waterways – by adding it to the menu! Snakehead dishes are served in a variety of restaurants in Washington and even nearby Baltimore, Maryland.

D.C. bringing on the shade

Based on an Urban Forests Effects Model (UFORE) analysis, District trees remove 490 metric tons of air pollution per year, a benefit that is valued at $3.7 million per year in reductions of air pollution related health care spending. The evaporation from a single large tree can produce the cooling effect of ten room-size air conditioners operating 24 hours a day. Washington, D.C. is embarking on an urban tree canopy project with a goal to increase the total percent of tree canopy in the city from 35% to 40% by planting thousands of new trees every year culminating in 2032.  With a little luck and some helping hands in the form of volunteers, Washington, D.C. will enjoy many shady summers in the future.