3001 Connecticut Avenue, NW Washington, DC 20008
The National Zoo is, somewhat surprisingly, a birder’s delight. The Zoo is a 163-acre urban park, founded in 1889 and located in northwest Washington, DC,. The Zoo is part of the Smithsonian Institution, the formal name being the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. Although the park is dominated by the zoo’s buildings and enclosures, there are many trees and shrubs that provide shelter for the wild birds attracted to the various foods use to feed the Zoo’s animals as well as to the Zoo’s landscaped grounds. In fact, there are 180 species of trees, 850 species of woody shrubs and herbaceous plants, and 40 species of grasses present in the grounds. All of this plant diversity helps to support the 175+ species of birds that have been found here. The entire length of the Olmsted Walk, the wide main path up and down the Zoo’s impressive hill (see zoo map at link at left), is home to wild birds year-round.
The National Zoo is probably best known among birders for its nesting colony of Black-crowned Night-Herons, usually present from March through September or October, in the trees by the waterfowl pond and eagle enclosure. Yellow-crowned Night-Herons have also been present in recent years. In the waterfowl pond, look for free-flying Wood Ducks, Mallards, and American Black Ducks. Black and Turkey Vultures and Red-tailed, Red-shouldered, Cooper’s, and Sharp-shinned Hawks have been known to frequent the mammal compounds.
The Zoo’s Bird House is currently (spring 2020) closed for a massive, multi-year renovation; when it re-opens in 2021, the centerpiece of the Bird House will be an exhibit focusing on bird migration, the first of its kind in the world. The exhibit will feature migratory songbirds, waterfowl, and shorebirds integral to North, Central, and South American ecosystems. You can see a preview of the plans for the renovated Bird House.
Although the Zoo has an impressive collection of captive birds in its aviary, today the Zoo is about much more than captive birds. There are several programs that focus on wild birds, citizen science, and conservation.
In alignment with its education mission, the Zoo hosts bird-banding demonstrations during migration, and has a program, Wild Birds of the National Zoo, that focuses on how birds make their living in residential environments and how people can improve that environment for the benefit of birds and other wildlife. Wild Birds of the National Zoo enlists the public to report sightings of birds that are color-banded at the Zoo; the data are used to estimate the survival rate of the wild birds that make the Zoo their home.
The Zoo partners with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center to sponsor the Migratory Bird Club, which offers bird walks with Migratory Bird Center scientists, a quarterly enewsletter with ornithology updates, lectures and events, and an annual Migratory Bird Center field trip excursion. The Migratory Bird Center is the organization that runs the Bird-Friendly Certified Coffee Program, which aims to preserve habitat for neotropical migrants and tropical breeding birds by promoting coffee grown in a sustainable manner.
Other programs sponsored by the Zoo include Neighborhood Nestwatch and special events in conjunction with the annual World Migratory Bird Day each May.
The Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute express their mission simply: “we save species.” The Zoo’s commitment to conservation, research, and education extends to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, located in Front Royal, Virginia (not open to the public), where scientists and animal care experts conduct veterinary and reproductive research to save wildlife and habitats for some of the world’s most endangered animals on the sprawling 3,200-acre campus. The Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute leads the Smithsonian’s global effort to save species, better understand ecosystems, and train future generations of conservationists. Scientists from the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute also work in field stations around the world. More than 200 scientists and their partners in more than 30 countries create and share knowledge to aid in the survival and recovery of species and their habitats. Findings from these studies provide critical data for the management of captive populations and valuable insights for the conservation and management of wild populations.
Over 175 species have been reported on eBird from the National Zoo.
Canada Geese, Mallards, and Wood Ducks are present year-round and breed on the grounds. American Black Ducks are present fall through spring but tend to disappear in summer.
Chimney Swifts are always overhead during the warm months, and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds can be found visiting blooming plants.
Great Blue Herons use the Zoo’s water features year-round. There is a breeding colony of Black-crowned Night-Herons, and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons may also be present in the colony. Ospreys and Bald Eagles are occasional visitors or flyovers. Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks hunt the grounds from fall through spring, while Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks are present throughout the year.
Five species breeding woodpeckers occur (Red-bellied, Downy, Hairy, Pileated, and Northern Flicker), while Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Red-headed may be found in winter.
There are breeding populations of Eastern Wood-Pewee, Acadian Flycatcher, Eastern Phoebe, Great Crested Flycatcher, and Eastern Kingbird. Yellow-throated and Red-eyed Vireos are found from May through August or later. There is the usual assortment of Blue Jays, American and Fish Crows (in about equal numbers), Carolina Chickadees, and Tufted Titmice. Common Ravens are becoming more regular, and are expanding their range into the Coastal Plain.
There is a good selection of swallows overhead in summer: Northern Rough-winged, Tree, Bank, Barn, and even an occasional Cliff, while Purple Martins pass through during migration. Both kinglets, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creepers, and Winter Wrens overwinter, while White-breasted Nuthatches are year-round residents. Summer brings Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and House Wrens, and Carolina Wrens are always here. Gray Catbirds and Northern Mockingbirds are numerous, but Brown Thrashers are only occasionally found is spring and fall.
Year-round residents that are easy to see include American Robin, Cedar Waxwing, House Sparrow, House Finch, American Goldfinch, Song Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, and Northern Cardinal.
The Zoo is tolerably good for warblers during migration, with thirty-one species reported, but none apparently breed here, with the possible exception of Common Yellowthroat.
Paved lots at the Zoo with limited capacity. There is a charge of $25 per day for parking. Parking is very limited but it is possible to make a parking reservation in advance; see https://nationalzoo.si.edu/visit/parking-directions. The Zoo recommends public transportation.
There are several entrances to the Zoo and all are pedestrian and vehicle-friendly. There are several entrances to the Zoo and all are pedestrian and vehicle-friendly. The main entrance is located at 3000 Connecticut Ave. NW. Additionally, the Zoo can be accessed by the Harvard Street Bridge and by Beach Drive.
By Metro: Use the Red Line to either the Woodley Park station or the and Cleveland Park station. The two stations are both easy walking distance from the Zoo, but the walk is uphill from the Woodley Park stop and flat from the Cleveland Park stop.
By Bus: The L1 and L2 buses stop in front of the Zoo’s main entrance on Connecticut Avenue.
By car: From the north end of the Capital Beltway (I-495), take Exit 33 for MD Route 185/Connecticut Avenue south toward Chevy Chase. Follow Connecticut Avenue south and southeast for about 5.5 miles. You will encounter two traffic circles on the way; follow signage to continue south on MD Route 185/Connecticut Avenue. The Zoo will be on your left, at the intersection with North Street. Turn left onto North Street and follow signs to Zoo parking.
Washington, DC: Anacostia Park, Battery Kemble Park, C&O Canal – Fletcher’s Cove and Boathouse, Constitution Gardens, Dumbarton Oaks Park, East Potomac Park (Hains Point) and the Tidal Basin, Georgetown Reservoir & Palisades Trolley Trail, Glover-Archbold Park, Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, National Arboretum, Rock Creek Park, Theodore Roosevelt Island
Montgomery County: Blue Mash Nature Trail, C&O Canal – Pennyfield, Violette’s & Riley’s Locks, Little Bennett Regional Park, Lois Y. Green Conservation Park, McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area (Hughes Hollow), Rock Creek Regional Park – Lake Needwood, Rock Creek Regional Park – Meadowside Nature Center & Lake Frank, Seneca Creek State Park, Wheaton Regional Park – Brookside Gardens, Brookside Nature Center, Pine Lake Area
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