Assateague's Wildlife

Egrets at Assateague State ParkAssateague Island is on the Atlantic flyway. Over 200 species of birds have been sighted here - from gulls to herons, egrets to eagles, even endangered peregrine falcons and snowy owls. Those most prevalent include osprey, herons, egrets, sandpipers, shorebirds, ducks, geese and other waterfowl.

Both whitetail and sika deer live on the island, although there is little competition between the two.

Sika deer originated in Asia and were brought to the island in 1923. They are more closely related to elk than our native whitetail. Sika prefer the thick marshlands to the more wooded areas that the whitetail inhabit. They reach heights of 2½ - 3 feet, can weigh between 70-90 pounds, and can make ten different sounds!

The ocean and bay surrounding the island teem with life. Dolphins are often seen frolicking in the waves of the ocean. Flounder, spot, sea trout, puffer, rockfish, croaker, red drum and bluefish are residents, and marlin and tuna can be found in deeper water offshore. Seals, whales, sand sharks and sea turtles have washed up on the shore. Staff at Assateague work with the National Aquarium in Baltimore and Oxford Labs when a beaching occurs – whether the animal is alive or not.

The Ponies

The island is best known for the world-famous wild ponies. Local lore experts theorized the ponies arrived on the island via a shipwrecked vessel in the late 18th or early 19th century. Others attribute their arrival by pirates drawn to the island who ultimately abandoned the animals. A more likely theory is that farmers in colonial times used the island for grazing areas to avoid paying taxes on the land.

A wild pony at Assateague State ParkThe ponies definitely draw people to Assateague. While wild ponies can be found in other locations, they are usually only seen from a distance. Here they walk right in the same areas as people and have been known to feast straight from visitors’ coolers!

Both the State Park and the National Seashore discourage people from feeding and otherwise interacting with ponies and other wildlife. Citations are issued when visitors are observed doing so.

The National Park Service manages the herd of ponies at the northern end of Assateague Island. The separate herd in Virginia is owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, which sponsors the annual pony penning and swim every July.

Neither park provides veterinary care or supplemental feeding. The only human “management” is in the form of anti-fertilization injections administered to a mare after she has bred once. This maintains a herd size that is within the carrying capacity of the island.

The ponies’ diet consists mainly of marsh and dune grasses. Their water comes from the freshwater ponds located on the island. They are true horses, and not actual ponies, who have adapted to the diet and life on Assateague. During the winter their coats become quite thick to protect them from the harsh winds. Their short, stocky build allows them to navigate the marshes and to store water efficiently.

Did you know that the horses’ eyes do not reflect light at night? This makes them difficult to see after dark so drive safely and stay alert!

Wildlife Frequently Asked Questions

Where are the horses?
The horses are feral and have free reign of the Maryland section of the island, so they can be anywhere at any time. The National Park has areas set aside for observation and trails throughout their park. The horses can often be found in the marsh areas, on the beach, or further down the island in the National Park’s OSV (Over Sand Vehicle) area. There is no guarantee that by paying the service charge visitors will see horses.

Can I touch or feed the horses?
It is illegal to touch or feed any wildlife. This is for everyone’s safety. When the horses are fed by people, they begin to depend on people for food. Therefore they approach people and sometimes become aggressive when no food is available to them. Visitors have been bitten and/or kicked. Also, the horses must learn to find food on their own during the winter season when there are few visitors to the island. Citations and fines will be given to visitors who disregard this policy.

How many horses are on the island?
There are two herds; one in Maryland and one in Virginia. There are approximately 105 in the Maryland herd and about 150 in the Virginia herd. A contraceptive darting program is in effect with the Maryland horses in order to keep the population size to a manageable number.

Is there a place where I can see any native animals up close?
ASP’s Nature Center is the perfect place. Summer visitors can see horseshoe crabs, terrapins, seahorses, spider crabs, flounder, eel, blue crabs, hogchoker, pufferfish, spiny boxfish, lookdown, mud snails, silversides, box turtles, surf clams, mud turtles, sea stars, mummichog, killifish, quahog, bay and sea scallops, perch, glass shrimp, and sea cucumbers, to name a few.