Just because you can’t tell a Tufted Titmouse from a Coast Pignut Hickory doesn’t mean your kid has to know you’re not a walking Natural History Museum. With these nature apps for smartphones and tablets, you can wander outdoors, day or night, and answer practically any question they have, from “What is that bright star on the horizon?” to “Is this bug that I’m putting in my mouth poisonous?” The window of time during which your kid thinks you know everything is vanishingly thin, so leverage technology to make it last as long as possible. Because, someday soon, they’ll be all grown up and able to Google things for themselves.
How It Works: Merlin asks you 4 simple questions about any bird you happen upon and delivers a small selection of potential species. Assuming you can see and/or hear it, you can quickly identify whatever it was that just pooped on you.
What’s Awesome: Merlin cross-references your answers with a massive database of bird sightings that’s maintained by thousands of hardcore bird geeks, and only suggestions species that are known to have been seen recently near your location.
What’s Less Awesome: While suggested species will include samples of their song, the nature app can’t identify a bird based on its song, which some less-free apps can.
Stars and Planets Apps
How It Works: Point your phone’s camera at the night sky and SkyView will determine your location via GPS and identify all the planets, constellations, stars and satellites that are currently visible.
What’s Awesome: A robust search function that helps you find things like the International Space Station, the Hubble telescope, or the Big Dipper (which, really, you should already know how to find already). It also has daily updates that point out when new things have become visible.
What’s Less Awesome: Not much — SkyView is one of the top-rated nature apps of all time in the App Store. There are some grumblings on Google Play about compatibility issues with certain phones, but it still has a 4+ rating on over 4,000 reviews.
Bugs and Butterflies Apps
How It Works: Basically just an app version of the Audobon Society’s world-class field guides, these apps include in-depth information on literally every single butterfly or bug you could possibly encounter in North America.
What’s Awesome: Spectacular photo galleries for every single species and robust search that lets you enter things like size, shape, and color to help identify things when you don’t know the name (so, you know, all the things).
What’s Less Awesome: They’re nearly as static as the books they’re meant to replace; much, much lighter, but otherwise not a whole lot different.
Animal Tracks Apps
How It Works: Another app version of an old school field guide, iTrack Wildlife lets you search a database of 69 North American mammals based on some basic information about their foot, paw, or claw prints.
What’s Awesome: The nature app will not only help you identify animals based on their prints, but also on their skulls (provided you’re taking your kid to the sort of place where old animal skulls are lying around).
What’s Less Awesome: Tiered pricing means you can access a handful of species with the free “Lite” version and a handful more with the “Basic” version. The whole package is pretty spendy for an app, but do you really want to save $10 and not know you’re following a cougar until you catch up to it?
How It Works: Leafsnap uses software similar to facial recognition to scan a photo of leaf that you take with your phone and compare it with a database with hundreds of different tree species. The resulting match includes everything you could ever want to know about that tree.
What’s Awesome: If your tree identification chops start “apple trees have apples” and ends with “trees without apples aren’t apple trees,” Leafsnap will help you see (and name) the trees from the forest.
What’s Less Awesome: While the folks behind the nature app — Columbia, the University Of Maryland, and the Smithsonian — are adding species all the time, it currently works best in the Northeastern U.S. and Canada, as well as the U.K. Also, it’s iOS only (although the Audobon Society has a less robust tree app for Android).
How It Works: The same as Leafsnap — LikeThat uses visual search technology to scan images you take with your phone’s camera and match them to flowers in a database stored within the app.
What’s Awesome: Dead simple to use and provides tips on caring for specific flowers once they’ve been identified (although, for your purposes, “Don’t tear it out of the ground” is probably all you’ll need).
What’s Less Awesome: If you were hoping to go for a walk in the woods, don’t let your kid use this in your front yard or you’ll never get anywhere.