Chicago is a vibrant, modern yet historic metropolis found along the banks of Lake Michigan in the state of Illinois, United States. As the city in the US with the third highest population at 2.7 million residents, Chicago has grown substantially from a little village incorporated in 1837, to a roaring a bustling, international hub for transportation, business, communication and culture. However, despite the expansive human growth in this region, the city of Chicago has been a strong advocate for local wildlife and wild places within its city limits. In fact, over 15,000 native plants species are found in and around Chicago making it one of the most botanically diverse areas in the United States. Areas like Lake Calumet, Wolf Lake, and Little Calumet River, all found within Chicago city limits, are known to have the richest wildlife populations in the city.  Outside of these regions, urban wildlife can often be found right under your nose. From the waddling opossum to fluttering swamp metalmark, wildlife abounds in the city of Chicago. Arkive’s WildChicago feature dives deep into the natural world in this global metropolis to show that connecting with nature in this urban jungle is a short walk, bike ride or elevated train ride away.  Another fun fact, the word “Chicago” is thought to be derived from the Native American Chippewa word, “she-gua-ga winzhe”, meaning “wild onion”, a native plant that was historically found in large quantities along the banks of the Chicago River.


Given the size of the city of Chicago and its commitment to preserving and restoring wild spaces throughout, one doesn’t have to travel far to find nature in the city. Below are a few of the favorite wild spaces Chicago has to offer that provide a welcome respite from the bustling urban life.

<1 mile - Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary

Considered by many to be one of the best bird viewing areas in the country, Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary hosts a variety of habitats for spotting common and rare species. Walking along the dunes, you may spot sparrows especially in the spring and fall or, on a stroll across the pier, keep an eye out for common scoters and red-throated loons.

2 miles – Lincoln Park

At 1208 acres, Lincoln Park is the largest and nearly the oldest park in Chicago. With miles of walking paths abounding throughout the park, the opportunities for a run-in with plants and animals sharing the urban landscape are plenty. If you’re lucky, you might spot a blue heron catching a snack at the North Pond Nature Sanctuary located within the park or even find a shy red fox peeking at you from the bushes.

< 10 miles – Waterfall Glen

As its name suggests, Waterfall Glen does have an actual waterfall, albeit a small one. It is actually named for one of the early presidents of the forest preserve district’s board of commissioners, Seymour “Bud” Waterfall. The 9.5 mile loop takes visitors through three different ecosystems including oak-maple woodlands, prairies, and forest savannas, and boasts an impressive 740 native plant species. In addition to the diverse plant life, Waterfall Glen supports over 600 species of animals. The amphibian-inclined will want to keep an eye out for the five salamanders native to this park including the splendidly colorful blue spotted-salamander.

Up to 20 miles – Chicago Lakefront Trail

Located completely within Chicago city limits, the paved Chicago Lakefront Trail hugs the coast of Lake Michigan and is a wonderful stroll or bike ride with a chance of spotting unique urban wildlife especially when the trail intersects with four Chicago parks: Lincoln Park, Grant Park, Burnham Park, and Jackson Park. Keep an eye out for Illinois state tree, the white oak tree, which provides invaluable habitat for over 500 caterpillar species.



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Cup of coffee and a coyote?

Did you know that coyote are actually found within the city limits of Chicago? While altercations sometimes occur due to such close proximity, humans and coyotes have lived in peaceful coexistence the vast majority of the time. Between 1960 and 2006, there were 159 reported coyote bites to humans across North America. To put this in perspective, in 2012 there were 5,000 reported bites to humans by domestic dogs in Cook County alone - the county in which Chicago is found. While the presence of this species can sometimes create challenging situations, having animals such as coyotes as part of a healthy and functioning local ecosystem supports a higher quality of life for both humans and wildlife.

A little poop can go a long way for wildlife conservation research

While some may consider the subject of poop to be taboo, scientists and conservationists around the world understand the value of studying wildlife feces as a tool for understanding a variety of aspects of their natural history from diet and internal chemistry to even pinpointing the places the animals have recently visited. Researchers at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago use wildlife droppings as a non-invasive tool for studying wildlife locally and around the world. Looking to inspire the next generation of wildlife conservationists, Lincoln Park Zoo has sought opportunities for sharing wildlife poop with kids at local Chicago events such as Family Science Days. While not exactly a hands-on experience, children are all ears to hear how poop can yield so much meaningful information about an animal and if it takes poop to inspire the conservationists of tomorrow, so be it!


A potential Asian invasion

It is nearly impossible to discuss the natural history of Chicago without hearing mention of Asian carp. Native to Asian countries including Vietnam and China, 4 species of Asian carp, including the bighead carp, the black carp, the grass carp, and the silver carp, have found their way into the Mississippi River; a river running from the top to bottom of the US and very near Chicago and Lake Michigan. Brought over to the United States to be utilized as weed and parasite control in aquaculture operations around the Mississippi River, a few Asian carp escaped and began a viable breeding population that spread precipitously through the Midwestern United States. The presence of Asian carp in the Mississippi River has radically changed the local ecosystem. Reaching up to 100lbs in size and consuming anywhere from 20-40% of its body weight daily, Asian carp engulf substantial amounts of aquatic plants, fish species, and even marine invertebrates such as snails and mussels. Should Asian carp establish a sustained population in Lake Michigan, it has the potential to drastically affect the sport fish industry valued at $7 billion annually. In response to this, the city of Chicago is considering environmental management plans costing up to $18 billion dollars; some include the creations of a physical barrier between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River.    

Climate change in the city

While there are numerous ongoing scientific studies on the effects of global climate change on threatened ecosystems, often the effects on urban habitats can go unnoticed. Chicago has seen the effects of climate change including a shift in plant hardiness zone, or the geographic location where a plant can grow and thrive, from 5 to 6 since 1990. Of particular concern is the projected increase of large precipitation events, meaning greater snowfall and rainfall events, in decades to come as a result of current carbon emissions levels.  Even the common Mallard duck could potentially disappear from the ponds and lakes of Chicago by 2080 due to changes in their normal habitat and range as a result of climate change. The city of Chicago has put forth a number of actions to help address the current and future effects of climate change including the creation of a climate-ready action plan and protocols that ensure that efforts taken today to enhance and support the local wildlife and habitat in Chicago will succeed in the face of climate change effects in the future. For more information on Climate Change, explore Arkive’s Climate change feature page.