This is a lesser yellowlegs walking on a beach. It's an example of birds we need to learn to identify to better understand how our world is changing.

Species Literacy Matters

Do you know the difference between a Least Sandpiper and a Spotted Sandpiper? I don’t. I’m sitting here with hundreds of pictures of living things in my natural world, and I don’t know what they are.

Over the last four days, I have been participating in the Nature Conservancy of Canada Big Backyard Blitz, an invitation to all Canadians to go outside and document the natural world. This “citizen science” is important for so many reasons. It helps researchers learn where species are and how they are spreading or declining. It motivates us to get outside, to move, to look more deeply at the world around us. For me, the most important benefit, is that it promotes interest in the natural world for our children.

Why is this important?

It changes how we see the world. When we know what things are, we can see changes like declining biodiversity, invasive species, rare species, and the impacts of climate change.

My friend and colleague, Matt Henderson, wrote about this for CBC in 2016.

Two fundamental gaps are apparent in our society and our media. First, there is a knowledge gap. We simply do not know enough about the natural world to contemplate the ecological crisis that is upon us. Second, there appears to be a knowledge-action gap — a gap in our ability to take meaningful action when we do gain scientific knowledge. My hope is that education is the mechanism for closing these gaps. I would also argue that the kindergarten to Grade 12 system and post-secondary institutions need to repurpose themselves to educating learners about the ecological crisis and providing them with the skills to mitigate it and create sustainable communities.

Education must focus efforts on ecological literacy, Matt Henderson says, CBC News, March 2016.

One of the most important skills is the ability to speak competently and confidently about what is being observed, and this begins with really seeing the world in detail. We don’t see trees, we see a balsam fir, a black spruce, a white birch and a trembling aspen. We see when the birches are stressed from drought, when the balsams are blown down in wind storms. We recognize that there are no saskatoon berries this year because of the drought.

Knowledge is power. Our forests are losing resilience. Biodiversity is crashing. Species literacy must be a priority for our young learners.

Events like the NCC Big Backyard Blitz give us the tools to engage and excite children to see and learn about life in their natural world while contributing to a global database. We have so many free online tools now to help us identify what we see outdoors.

And oh, that bird I watched today on Middlebrun Bay (Lake Superior) – it’s a Least Sandpiper, and I’ll be uploading that one now to iNaturalist. Only about 200 more photos to go!

Least Sandpiper on Middlebrun Bay (Lake Superior) – My latest upload for the Nature Conservancy of Canada Big Backyard Blitz.

Audio Recording of this post

Featured Image: Donna Miller Fry, August 1, 2022. Lesser yellowlegs at Middlebrun Bay


Knowledge about species is associated with exposure to biodiversity and positive attitudes towards nature and animals. Identification skills in biodiversity professionals and laypeople: A gap in species literacy. Michiel J.D.HooykaasaMennoSchilthuizenacCathelijnAtenaElisabeth M.HemelaaraCasper J.AlbersbIonicaSmeetsa

The Future of our Forests (podcast) on The Current, CBC

Species Identification skills in teacher education students: the role of attitude, context and experience.

Balancing Research, Monitoring and Action to Recover Canada’s Species at Risk

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