Mingle with the Wild Things Using These Nature Apps

Many educators have voiced concern that the allure of smartphones will rob children of their curiosity about and engagement with the natural world—and even of the words they have to describe it. Writers, in particular, lament that technology has invaded not only our natural spaces, but also our language; we are using words like web and tweet, not to mention apple and blackberry, to talk about our devices rather than our backyards. There was an outcry when the most recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary dropped more than 50 nature words—including acornfernivy, heron and otter—to make room for terms like cut and paste, broadband and chat room.

Yet the same devices that keep children indoors, staring at a screen, can also lure them outdoors. Nature apps can help children observe their surroundings more closely, “rewild” their vocabulary and become more ecologically literate—just by teaching them the names for wild things. When children recognize a robin or a birch tree or a woolly bear caterpillar, they are no longer experiencing nature as a pastoral backdrop, but sharpening their ability to see and wonder about the diversity of wild species all around us.

The most charismatic and easily spotted wild species, even in the heart of the city, are birds. Merlin Bird ID, a child-friendly app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, helps identify the feathery visitors that cluster around your feeder. Download the “bird pack” for your geographical region, answer three questions about the mystery bird (its size, colors and what it’s up to), and Merlin will identify your avian, or at least narrow it down to a few choices. You can also upload a photo to the app for a nearly instantaneous identification.

Merlin uses gorgeous images from top wildlife photographers to illustrate each species, including males, females, juveniles and eggs. Children can explore the idea of migration through maps and bar charts that show how abundant each bird is in your area at different times of the year. With a push of a button, you can listen to their calls and songs, and learn to recognize them by ear. (Don’t miss the owl hoots!) This feature alone can make poems and stories about larks, nightingales and ravens—or birdsong motifs in classical music—come alive. When you travel, you can download “bird packs” for Europe, Mexico and Central America, with more regions on the way. It’s a dazzling resource that could be a spark to a passionate birdwatcher.

For an app that covers the vast panoply of living things, try Seek by iNaturalist. Seek was specially designed for children, with strong privacy protections that use your location information only to provide species matches near you. On your next family hike, snap pictures of the wild species you come across—a cluster of mushrooms, flowering weeds, a butterfly—and then upload them to the app. Seek uses a neural network trained on millions of photos to identify the species most likely to be in your area; it’s like a Shazam for wildlife. Your child can add each identified species to a life list of sightings and collect badges like First Fungus and First Arachnid. When your family travels, you can type in your new location to see what wild species are common in that area—and collect more observations and badges.

If you have a budding wildlife photographer or serious naturalist in your family, he or she can graduate from the privacy-protecting Seek app to the full iNaturalist platform. Run by the California Academy of Sciences, the iNaturalist website has become a global forum for wildlife observers worldwide. Citizen scientists have posted more than 4 million photographs to the site, using crowd-sourcing and the expertise of professional scientists to identify unusual species. The website has already led to the discovery of a new species of poison frog in Columbia, and a tourist in Vietnam posted a picture of a snail that turned out to be a species that was first described and sketched during Captain Cook’s voyages in the 18th century, but never before photographed.

The photos that nature fans post to the site, even of the ordinary slugs and bugs in their gardens, help build a cumulative picture of population distributions, helping scientists track both invasive and endangered species across the globe. As well, iNaturalist hosts projects to which anyone is welcome to contribute, from National Moth Week to a compendium of all the wild plants growing in New York City. The value of these amateur observations is immense: more than half the material in the Global Biodiversity Information Facility—an open-access database with information about all types of life on Earth—comes from volunteers.

It’s possible to become a rare species hunter at a very young age! For instance, if you happen to spot a lizard anywhere in Connecticut, take a moment to observe it closely and note its location. The only species native to the state, the five-lined skink, is now highly endangered, and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection would be very excited to hear about your sighting.

May these apps turn your autumn hikes or family beach walks into exciting expeditions!