The Crossley ID Guide – A Review by a Birding Librarian

I wrote this review for the Queens County Bird Club newsletter News & Notes (May 2011). As I note, there have been many reviews of the Crossley ID Guide, but how many are by a librarian who opens right to the back to check the index?

  The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds, by Richard Crossley, Crossley Books, Princeton University Press, 2011. $35.00.

The Crossley ID Guide may be the first birding book to get a full-blown social media rollout. Months before the book was published, sample photo pages were being passed around the Internet and on Facebook, whetting birders’ appetites for something completely different. The co-author of The Shorebird Guide announced that he was working on a radically new approach to field identification. In February 2011 bird bloggers crowed in delight as they received their review copies. (Disclosure: I was also graciously sent a review copy by Princeton University Press; I told them I would spread the word about the book to birders who read print.)

I haven’t read the many Internet reviews of The Crossley ID Guide. I like to review with a fresh mind and test field guides in the field. Which has not been easy. First, we have had very uncooperative weather ! Second, this may be a field identification guide, but it is not a guide you can carry about in your pocket. Weighing as much as a 3-year old child (o.k., 3.6 lbs., but it feels like 30), it is the identification guide you keep in your car or consult as you examine your photographs. And, I think birders will do that. Open up The Crossley ID Guide to any page and you will understand why. It will amaze you and puzzle you and then amaze you again.

Think of your standard field guide: one prime drawing or photograph per species, often accompanied by illustrations of the bird in juvenile, alternate and female plumage, sometimes flying. A paragraph of text, usually on the facing page, describes the bird, and a map indicates distribution.

Now, take a look at Crossley. (If you don’t have a book in hand, access his web site http://www.crossleybooks.com/books/, click on Eastern Birds. Selected pages can also be seen through Google Books, http://books.google.com/)  Or, you can take a look at the plate below, thanks to Jessica, the friendly PR person from Princeton University Press.   This is page 414, Yellow-rumped Warbler.

Yellow-rumped Warbler Page (reproduced courtesy of PUP)

I count 18 photographs on this page. The bird is illustrated in adult breeding plumage, adult winter plumage, 1st-winter plumage, adult transitional plumage, flying and showing the tail feathers, flying and showing the wings, perching on a grass stalk in non-breeding plumage, perching so you can see that yellow rump, and, for good measure, a couple of photos of the western Audubon’s race. In other words, no matter what kind of view you may have gotten of a Yellow-rumped Warbler, it will be represented on this page.

This is the crux of this book: photographic pages composed of multiple, varied depictions of each species. It is the first field guide to exploit the flexibility of digital photography. Crossley arranged over 10,000 avian photographic images, almost all shot by him, to illustrate 660 species. My friend Ian, who has been birding and using field guides for over 25 years, says he finds the photos overwhelming. So did I initially. Using this guide will be a learning process for many birders who grew up on Peterson’s or Golden Books.

Each page depicts birds in a natural habitat, rather than the standard blank page. So, the Yellow-rumped Warblers are seen perched and flying in a field, a real field with bayberry bushes and buildings in the background. We can see how the bird easily blends into the brown/gray foliage, especially in winter plumage. Distribution maps and text are at the bottom of each species page, headed by the common and Latin names name of the bird, its length, and its banding code.

Yes, banding codes. Crossley uses banding codes extensively throughout the book, another change from the norm. So, we read on page 410 that the Magnolia Warbler’s song is “somewhere between CSWA, AMRE, and HOWA.” Crossley explains, somewhat apologetically, that the codes are necessary for space considerations, and provides an index at the end of the book. I understand the space concern, but birders not familiar with the codes will find reading the text slow going at times.

Crossley’s description of YRWA (yes, Yellow-rumped Warbler!), is specific and dense with details essential for identifying the bird: shape, coloration, head pattern, differences between breeding and non-breeding birds, feeding behavior, song and call descriptions, abundance and arrival pattern. I really like Crossley’s species descriptions. He defines himself as a visual person who doesn’t like text, yet his summaries are highly readable and lively, another difference (and an unexpected one) from the standard field guide. Where else would you find Skimmers defined as “weird”? He often takes on the voice of a strict teacher. Least Sandpiper, for example is “Distinctly short, fat, and chunky with short neck and small head; these features should be the basis of all ID” (p. 178). In other words, look at the shape, not the color of the legs!

Another notable change in this guide is the organization. Most field guides arrange species based on the current taxonomic system, which means some of my field guides begin with Loons and some begin with Ducks. (Or as Rick Kedenburg would say, “Loons first!”) Crossley arranges species by habitat and similarities, which works out surprisingly well, and ends up being not very different from a taxonomic order. It also makes it possible to position specific birds opposite each other, so we can compare Forster’s Tern and Common Tern in one view. (The American Ornithological Union has them separated by Arctic Tern).

So, should you buy this book? Yes, if you are a birder who loves birding books. Yes, if you are a birder who likes to think and talk about identification techniques. Yes, if you are a naturalist who enjoys looking at excellent photography. (Reading this review I see that I neglected to say how incredibly beautiful these photographs are.) No, if you are a beginning birder looking for a field guide; for that I recommend Peterson’s, Sibley’s, National Geographic, or Kaufman. The book can be purchased at a significant discount through Amazon, and Crossley has been speaking at organizations around the country, so there is a good chance that you can get it autographed as well. I look forward to hearing your opinions of “Crossley”!

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One response to “The Crossley ID Guide – A Review by a Birding Librarian

  1. I love your review. I love the concept of the illustrations. This will be on my birthday list. I love a good index as I am also a librarian! And a big fan of Julie’s.

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