River Ecology and Wildlife

A river is more than the water inside it. Water is just one part of the river ecosystem, comprised of many interdependent links. The water, rocks, sediment, and living things inside the river are intrinsically connected to the plants, animals, and non-living components of the riparian zone, the interface between the river and the land alongside it. The Chicago River system itself is 156 miles long, but its surrounding  watershed, the area that drains to it, covers 674 square miles. That’s a lot of space that can potentially impact the river, either positively or negatively.

The Chicago River’s character changes throughout its course. It winds through prairies, woodlands, savannas, wetlands and must also navigate industrial, residential, and commercial developments. Sometimes it is a small, natural stream little more than a few inches deep, and in other locations it is a wide, channelized waterway with enough space for massive shipping barges. As the landscape and nature of the river change, so do the communities that live within and alongside it. Some of these changes are natural, and others are directly linked to human impact.

That the Chicago River continues to be such a dynamic system in the midst of a major metropolitan area is a testament to its resilience. Today, the Chicago River supports hundreds of different species, ranging from large mammals like coyotes and deer to the tiny duckweed, one of the smallest flowering plants on the planet.  Through times of modification, pollution, and habitat degradation, the river has maintained its importance as a refuge for wildlife, plants, and even people.

Click on the navigation menu on the side or bottom of the page to view specific information on the living things in the Chicago River system.