The nation’s capital is turning drainage ditches into meandering waterways buffered by vegetation, making them more hospitable to birds, fish and reptiles. Instead of mowing the grass, it’s turning open green spaces into meadows filled with plants for pollinators. And it’s encouraging residents to plant milkweed, which has been a boon to monarch butterflies.

The District is an urban paradise for many wild animals, and it’s at the forefront of nationwide efforts to make cities and suburbs better places for wildlife.

Across the country, scientists and city planners are working to better understand the animals that call urban areas home, while working to design cities so residents and wildlife can coexist peacefully. Most research on urban wildlife has taken place only in the past 15 years or so, but scientists nationwide generally agree that more animals are moving into urban and suburban areas.

As the country grows more urbanized, with nearly 90 percent of the U.S. population projected to live in urban areas by 2050, scientists say that making sure animals and humans can coexist in cities will grow increasingly important.

“Generalist” species such as deer, coyotes and raccoons — that thrive in many different conditions — have found cities especially welcoming. Many have been forced out of their natural habitat by development, and an abundance of food and lack of predators make cities a good home.

“Animals are just savvy, and they’re starting to adapt because development is pushing them into cities,” said Travis Gallo, who teaches urban ecology at George Mason University.

The nation’s capital has more green space per capita than nearly any city in the country, said Tommy Wells, director of the District’s Department of Energy and Environment. And its river corridors, as well as long stretches of natural areas such as Rock Creek Park and the C&O Canal, give animals space to move freely through the city.

Wells’s agency is working to increase the District’s habitat, planting 11,000 trees a year with the goal of reaching 40 percent coverage of tree canopy before 2032.

The District also has enacted regulations restricting the use of coal tar and some pesticides, aiming to improve the water quality of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers. It has strict storm-water regulations, encouraging developers to plant trees and install green roofs. These efforts have paid off, Wells said.

Shad runs have rebounded on the Potomac River, and the city may soon allow anglers to keep the fish for the first time since 1982. Eagles, bobcats and nesting ravens have been spotted in the District for the first time in years, while a flock of turkeys has taken up residence east of the Capitol. Perhaps most important, the newcomers are being welcomed.

“We’re seeing a major change in attitude of the residents of D.C. towards wildlife,” Wells said. “It used to be that if there were bats in your eaves, you’d call Animal Control. Now we have residents asking us how to build a bat house.”

The District is working to connect more residents with nature, sanctioning urban camping on Kingman Island, in the middle of the Anacostia River, while conducting citizen-science projects that have proved popular. Wells said he regularly paddles dignitaries down the river in a canoe, and they’re surprised to see animals such as beavers and hedgehogs thriving in the city.

In some cases, the habitat has proven too welcoming. Wells acknowledged that deer have become a nuisance in parts of the city, with populations growing unchecked and eating too much vegetation. In Rock Creek Park, the National Park Service has for several years brought in sharpshooters to cull the “overabundant” deer.

Other cities are engaged in similar efforts. In Seattle, for example, the Seattle Urban Carnivore Project is using trail cameras and citizen-recorded encounters to track wildlife near the Emerald City.

The project — which includes an interactive map with citizen-recorded encounters — has turned up coyote sightings in nearly every neighborhood, along with reports of bobcats, mountain lions and bears.

“These species are present among us,” said Mark Jordan, a Seattle University professor who is one of the leaders of the project. “Treating every nonhuman living organism in the city like a nuisance — you’re fighting an uphill battle. It does not behoove you to try to eradicate all the animals in the city. You’ll never win. You need to find better ways to coexist with them.”

Social media users have been captivated by recently posted videos of a coyote and a badger crossing a road together and a black bear wandering through a Southern California neighborhood. Liza Lehrer, chairwoman of the Urban Wildlife Working Group and assistant director of the Lincoln Park Zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute in Chicago, said coyotes, flying squirrels, mink and beavers all live in the Windy City.

“We’re seeing more animals moving to the urban core,” she said. “It provides people this really unique experience to see wildlife in a city. You don’t really have to leave the city to have those experiences with nature.”

Many wildlife agencies are shifting to a more hands-off approach to animals in urban areas instead of treating every sighting as a problem to be solved. Chicago, which has a large coyote population, won’t act on complaint calls unless an animal poses a threat to human safety.

“If a call comes in about a coyote in a cemetery — well, leave it alone because it’s not interacting with you,” said Mamadou Diakhate, interim director of Chicago’s Animal Care and Control. “The excellent news about coyotes [is], they are very good at avoiding human, contact and they’re not aggressive most of the time.”

Chicago has worked to educate people about living alongside coyotes, but rare moments of conflict — such as a January incident in which a young boy was bitten — can create the perception that the animals pose a threat. The city has received more than 1,000 calls about coyotes in the first two months of the year, nearly equal to the total from 2019. Diakhate noted that the city sends officers to respond to all calls about coyotes, but most prove to be a “sighting” rather than a “nuisance” that requires action.

Scientists say coyotes have proven to be one of the most adaptable species, and they have taken up residence in many large cities, such as New York, Denver and Portland. Though coyotes occasionally prey on small pets left outdoors, researchers say they’re far less dangerous than most people tend to think.

Not all urban animals make good neighbors. When the deer population skyrocketed in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the mid-1990s, auto collisions with the animals became more frequent and vegetation in the city began to disappear. With no natural predators in town, there was nothing to check the spread of the deer.

In 2005, the city began allowing hunting in town, crafting careful regulations for bowhunters who wanted to hunt on private property. Hunters must get permission from property owners and stay on large properties away from public areas.

When a black bear was spotted in Berrien County, Mich., in 2016, the first sighting there since the Civil War, many locals were excited. But the bruin bent over bird feeders, tore through trash cans and twice tried to push its way into houses. Because the bear didn’t show any fear of humans, said Mark Mills, a biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the agency had no choice but to euthanize it.

Mills said such situations are rare.

“People think we’re going and saving the public from this bear,” he said. “We’re not saving anybody’s life here other than the bear’s. We’re responding to get the bear out of there, because he’s stuck in a situation where he’s surrounded by people.”


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