Is the Ability to Identify Wildlife an Endangered Skill, or Unnecessary Knowledge?

Candice Gaukel Andrews October 29, 2013 57

Wolf or coyote? Would you be able to tell in the field? ©Henry H. Holdsworth

There’s an interesting, little book I picked up a few years ago. It’s titled Back in the Day: 101 Things Everyone Used to Know How to Do. Written by Michael Powell and published in 2006, the volume lists skills that used to be almost universally common—such as how to make your own butter or manufacture a barrel—but which are now almost absent among nonprofessionals.

While possessing those particular skills might be something we can all agree is no longer needed in today’s world, there are other proficiencies that have recently started to disappear that we probably would have a harder time deciding to deep-six: such as handwriting or understanding the meaning of nature words.

So, when I recently read a report out of the United Kingdom that stated that the ability to identify wildlife—along with being able to repair household items—topped a new list of endangered everyday skills, I wondered whether such know-how is just an inevitable victim of changing times or a loss we should strive to reverse.

In other words, is the competence to correctly identify wildlife—without an app—still crucial?

The top 10 list of lost skills

Per author Michael Powell, forecasting the weather is another skill most of us have lost. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

According to Greeniversity, a nonprofit project in the United Kingdom that seeks to bring about a skill-sharing “revolution” among adults, repairing household items and clothes and being able to identify wildlife are the most threatened skills in the UK today. The organization’s Endangered Skills Register, launched during the 60th anniversary year of the queen’s coronation, highlights how expertise that was widely known six decades ago could be on the verge of being forgotten.

In the new study, Greeniversity researchers asked respondents which three skills they felt were most at risk from becoming a dying art. The two highest-ranking responses were chosen by almost half of the participants. The complete list is:

  1. Repairing household items
  2. Wildlife identification
  3. Foraging for wild food
  4. Making and mending clothes
  5. Woodworking
  6. Traditional building techniques
  7. Growing food
  8. DIY and home improvement (hanging wallpaper, putting up a shelf, etc.)
  9. Preparing meals from scratch
  10. Fixing a bike puncture

A question of sustainability or progress?

In the years following World War II, stated Dr. Ian Tennant, Greeniversity’s development manager, families had no choice but to be resourceful. Gradually, however, it has become all too easy to move away from sustainable living. And, as history has shown, if these once-core skills are not passed on, they simply die out. Some believe that in these times of economic austerity, it’s vital that we preserve some of these skills for the next generation.

In times of economic austerity, it’s important to pass down some long-held skills to the next generation. @Ben Bressler

Just now, paging through that book of Powell’s, I see that listed in his 101 things that everyone used to know how to do are finding berries in the wild, growing herbs and making bread.

Perhaps that new list from Greeniversity isn’t so new, after all.

Do you think that being able to identify wildlife is a necessary skill in today’s world? Or are there now other means, such as apps, that are readily available and taking its place?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,


To help your children brush up on their wildlife identification skills, consider taking them on one of Natural Habitat Adventures’ family-focused trips, such as our Family Galapagos Adventure or Family Botswana Safari.


  1. Patti Greene-Swift November 15, 2013 at 6:13 am - Reply

    I certainly agree that what everyone used to know, and what is known now about wildlife and its identification, is largely lost in our population today. As a part of my work in the field I often have to identify species by sight, tracks and sign, and occasionally by sound, and then explain in depth why they are what they are so that others reading my reports will have some knowledge of how I determined what species are on their project sites (this includes plants too). That said, reports will never replace field gained knowledge of wildlife species, or their habitat needs, all of which is very important in our expanding footprint of use on the planet. Thank you for bringing this subject up–and I agree with a former comment that all ages can benefit from visiting parks with programs to educate visitors–and these programs are really fun too!

  2. Douglas Fraser November 6, 2013 at 11:55 am - Reply

    Yes, the FSC does a very good job. Long may it continue. I do promote your courses and ethic as much as possible. In addition, for those who do not already know, National Parks and Wildlife Trusts are also providers of good quality educational services (when their budgets are not being slashed). I’m sure they are all open to working in partnership with practising scientists. The pont about names: you are right it does not always stop there, but even when it does, it is a starting point. Incremental learning lasts. No knowledge is a waste.

  3. sharon flint November 6, 2013 at 11:54 am - Reply

    Agree that we need to target adults and children. The Field Studies Council has been doing just this through its courses for 75 years. The beauty of our course is that people want to both identify a species and learn about its ecology. The A.I.D.G.A.P.keys produced by the FSC are able to be used by a wide range of ages and abilities. Its important to point out that once a species is named, it does not necessarily stop there. We teach that taxonomy is a dynamic system and that names can change and the reasons for those changes. I have seen many people, from children to retired people inspired to learn more through enjoying an FSC course.

  4. Lyndal Breen November 6, 2013 at 11:53 am - Reply

    Little children love to learn the animal names, but without an interested and knowledgeable adult, they are restricted to the ‘popular’ ones in picture books. Most children (and adults) can identify lions, giraffes, zebras, kangaroo, polar bear etc. and name farm animals, but will not know the range of less well-known creatures, not even the ones in their local areas. Unfortunately, lacking understanding of how living creatures, plants, fungi etc fit within their habitat leads to people failing to see the value of protecting habitat.

  5. Vanessa Allen November 6, 2013 at 11:52 am - Reply

    Interesting article and very valuable comments posted after it too. I very much agree with the people who say that if we lose the ability to name and distinguish, we may cease to value and appreciate them and also be without any desire to conserve them.

  6. Helen Barber-James November 5, 2013 at 11:02 am - Reply

    I know organisations like the FBA in Windermere run really good taxonomy courses on freshwater organisms for people n the UK, but they also struggle with funding. Oddly enough, it seems that South Africa is better off regarding the teaching of taxonomy and funding of taxonomic projects than quite a lot of other countries. To get funding, though, we have to have a molecular component for species delimitation and phylogeny. We try to make sure that our students learn the morphology as well, and use both methods to define species.

  7. Will Justus November 5, 2013 at 11:01 am - Reply

    As one who has read field guides for fun as a child this is absolutely astounding to me. I consider a sense of wonder and curiosity at the natural world as a fundamental part of the human experience. The disappearance of the interest in plants and animals is not only a loss of the driving force behind science, but the loss of a very special part of being human.

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