Book Review – The Crossley ID Guide (Eastern Birds)

Crossley ID Guide (Eastern Birds)
Crossley ID Guide (Eastern Birds)

The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds
Richard Crossley
Princeton University Press
Cloth Flexibound
544 pages

I have to admit that I was initially pretty skeptical about the huge hype surrounding Richard Crossley’s new field guide The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds. It’s been described as “mind-blowing,” “revolutionary,” and “unconventional,” among countless other superlatives.

What makes Crossley’s guide different from anything else on the market is the way in which the birds are presented. A “traditional” guide like David Allen Sibley’s The Sibley Guide to Birds has plates that typically consist of illustrations showing several different aspects of a bird. There is an emphasis on specific field marks to help with identification. Each species plate is organized in a static manner: sometimes the illustrations are arranged in a vertical line or a grid. Usually the page background is a neutral white.

Crossley takes a different approach. Rather than using illustrations, Crossley has drawn from his bank of digital images and created plates that show photographs of the birds in typical habitat. He’s arranged them so that there is usually a dominant “representative” bird in the foreground combined with other “lifelike” images of the bird engaging in typical behaviours. Some of the birds are closer to the viewer while others are further away. Some are flying while others are at rest.

I have to admit that I’m still not 100% sold on the format. But it is growing on me the longer I use this book.

I think that my problem lies with the quality of the images. One of the difficulties with bird guides based on photographs is that the book is only as good as the images themselves. The majority of the images in this book are excellent, but there are just enough birds that are soft, or a little dark, or a little blurry, that I subconsciously feel that there is something not quite right with the plate.

Black Scoter plate
Black Scoter plate

In addition, some of the backgrounds have the same awkward, artificial feel. Most work well, but others have a contrived look to them. Granted, Crossley is attempting to create an archetypal background that showcases the habitat where one is likely to see the particular species of bird. Occasionally when he’s combined too many backgrounds together, albeit very skillfully, there’s a bit of a disconnect that detracts from the plate.

Black-and-white Warbler plate
Black-and-white Warbler plate

Given my own limited experience of the challenge of working with image software like Adobe Photoshop I can’t imagine the time and effort put into combining over 10,000 images of individual birds into 640 plates. Overall, it truly is a remarkable effort and a stunning achievement.

American Oystercatcher plate
American Oystercatcher plate

The book is organized into distinct sections. A simple visual key at the front of the book allows you to quickly sort your bird into a specific group. A more comprehensive visual key follows with a representative image of each bird, its American Ornithologist’s Union (AOU) four letter alpha code, and a page number. Some of the smaller birds are a little difficult to make out in this key but you get enough of an idea to make a start at identification.

What follows is a section that outlines the purpose of the book and the philosophy behind it. The “How to Be a Better Birder” expands on Crossley’s approach to birding and bird identification and makes for interesting, and practical, reading.

The main structure of the book organizes birds into eight distinct groups “based on habitat and physical similarities,” diverging slightly from the usual taxonomic order that is characteristic of most bird field guides. Each section has a short, two-page introduction that explains some of the fieldmarks and behaviours to look for, while attempting to identify species in the group.

More experienced birders might find the “Swimming Waterbirds, Flying Waterbirds, Walking Waterbirds, etc.” groupings somewhat basic but the association of habitat and behaviour does make logical sense. Beginning birders will definitely like this aspect of the book.

Within larger groups like “Songbirds” (almost 200 pages long) there are no subsections but similar types of birds like warblers are grouped together. I’m unsure why this part of the book wasn’t organized to highlight those natural groups better. Perhaps the idea is that beginning birders will use the visual key to point them to the relevant group.

Species accounts are well written and provide excellent pointers to help with identification. The range maps are a little on the small side but not noticeably so when compared with other field guides. I love the fact that the AOU codes are included with the species name and I think that this may help nudge recreational birders to become more in tune with the scientific oriented aspects of birding.

Any field guide has to be useable in the field and this is the one area where I think the Crossley ID Guide falls a little short. It’s just a little too big and heavy to take out into the field in a backpack or shoulder back. Leave it in the car to consult after an hour or so of birding.

Minor problems aside, this book does indeed live up to its hype. Overall, The Crossley ID Guide (Eastern Birds) is an excellent reference book that is well organized and wonderful to look through. There is plenty here that will ultimately make you a better birder.

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I want a copy!

So you’re probably thinking – I’d like to get a copy of that book, how do I do that? currently has The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds listed for a very affordable $23 CDN. But if you want a free copy, just leave a short comment below to tell me why you want the book and I’ll send you my review copy (I’ll wait for the Western Guide to come out and buy that one!). One lucky reader will be selected at random on August 1 and I’ll ship it off to you. Due to the weight of the book it might actually be more affordable for me to order you a copy from Amazon and have them pay for the shipping!