The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds, Princeton University Press, Richard Crossley, 2011, 529 pp.
Like many other birders I was intrigued when the first advertisements for this book appeared. Was it possible that this would be the first of a new generation of guide, a crossover if you like, or was it just a new variation on the tried and true photographic guide? The teaser plates was tempting: glorious montages of scoters bobbing across realistic backdrops, and plates replete with multiple images of birds in lifelike situations. So it was with great anticipation that I cracked open the review copy. I had the same initial reaction as that of every other birder I have shown the book to, which I can best summarize as bemused curiosity.
First things first. This is a big book, not something easy to lug about in the field; you can chuck it in the back seat of your car, but it is not something you can casually stick in a knapsack. The format is consciously simple. The first thing one encounters is a reference key, several pages in which small pictures of all of the species covered are provided along with their banders code (more on this later) and page reference, the idea being that the user can use this to quickly navigate to the bird in question. This is followed by a short “how to” section of about a dozen pages, focusing on birding basics (“learning to look”, “looking versus seeing”) and a more of less standard treatment of bird topography.
The heart of the book are the species accounts. Each species receives a full page, the bulk of which consists of a large image populated by cropped photographs of the species in various plumages and poses. This includes relatively large images in the foreground and smaller images in the background, usually including birds at rest, in flight and or demonstrating their usual comportment. The background itself is representative of the type of situation one might find the species in, thus the image should instantly ring true for those familiar with the species. The entire effect is somewhat like a museum diorama. At the bottom of the page is a short account providing information on the habits and habitat of the bird and key identification features broken down as appropriate to age, sex and subspecies.
What do I think of this book? Of all the guides I have reviewed this is the one that I have had the hardest time zeroing in on a conclusion. My first reaction was positive, flipping through it I encountered many plates that were both evocative of the species (the aforementioned scoter page kept drawing me back) and showed off the various features and poses one is likely to see it in. I encountered no outright errors, and the text, images and range maps are accurate (although I did find the style of the text rather idiosyncratic).
Looking more closely revealed some of the shortcomings of the approach. First, many of the plates are crowded and confusing to the eye; one friend compared it to the “Where’s Waldo” books where one has to pick out the one image of the toque wearing Waldo hidden in a crowd of lookalikes. This is especially true for smaller birds like warblers. Secondly, plumages that would never be seen together are mixed up, sometimes in an inappropriate setting (juvenile HOLA in the snow). Thirdly, while most key features are readily discernible, this is not always the case. To illustrate, I first opened the book in the midst of a veritable redpoll invasion here in Ontario, so one of the first things I looked at were the redpoll plates. Of the 32 (!) images of Common Redpoll, not one showed the rump, a key feature in the often tricky identification from Hoary. On the plus side, this is one of few guides that accurately portrays the bright orange bill typical of a breeding plumaged female Barrow’s Goldeneye (albeit only on the image of a bird in flight). The use of the banders code to cross reference birds will trip up some readers (HOLA = Horned Lark); despite the fact that I use the banders code in my notes I had trouble with some species that do not occur on my home turf (PLCH?) While the backgrounds are usually appropriate, this is not always the case. For example, American Tree Sparrow is portrayed against a winter landscape featuring a backdrop showing the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, my home town. So far, so good. Problem is, in my many years of birding I have never seen an ATSP against that backdrop, despite the fact that I cover that particular patch on the local CBC (Christmas Bird Count)! The final major critique I have of the approach is that it does not allow easy cross species comparisons. For example, to get a grip of say the accipiters it is useful, if not imperative, to have side by side images. From time to time this arrives if two species accounts happen to be on facing pages (such is the case for the redpolls), but usually it does not. This is a major, and in my view fatal shortcoming for a field guide. One final observation, the key photos while a nifty idea suffer from being rather small, for example the smaller owls are truly tiny, less than one quarter the size of the nail on my baby finger!
So, what to conclude? First, this is not a front line identification guide. For that the reader is advised to go with one of the classics. Its competitors are the various photographic guides available, including the recently issued and totally revised “Stokes” guide. The comparative advantage of the Crossley book are its photo montages, as all the competitors have stuck to a traditional “portrait” approach, and the fact that the birds are situated in a natural setting. While this has its advantages, faced with the various shortcomings noted above I put this as a “third line” book; a back up reference to be consulted after using your preferred classic, be it Sibley or the National Geographic guide, and after checking out the photos in your preferred photographic guide. Which brings me to my final point. The selling feature of this book is the proliferation of images, remember, 32 images of one species (CORE), but how useful is this in the internet age where increasingly birders can download photographs onto their mobile devises in the field? This is not “The Next Generation”, the next generation is already emerging in the form of various “aps” which meld images, vocalizations and text.