Book Review: The Crossley ID Guide, Eastern Birds

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The Crossley ID Guide, Eastern Birds, Richard Crossley (2011). Princeton & Crossley Books, New Jersey. 528 pp, more than 10,000 photographs. 19 x 25.5 cm. Paperback, ISBN 978-0-691-14778-9. Price: S$51.35 at Natures Niche.

“When I first visited Canada and United States in 1973 I bought a copy of Peterson (1961) (below left), and it became my trusted companion when I was out watching and photographing North American birds. The Peterson Field Guide Series books with their trade mark lines on the plates to indicate field marks totally revolutionized field ornithology in North America and Europe.

“The only thing I didn’t like about that book was that it only covered birds west of the 100th meridian (Peterson first did Eastern Birds in 1934). So for subsequent visits to the States in the 1990s I upgraded to Scott (1987) (below centre); this excellent field guide has become the standard guide to its area and is now in its 5th edition describing and illustrating ALL 967 species occurring.

“So, with the Crossley ID Guide we are now back to where we started, dividing the continent rather arbitrarily. Crossley uses an un-even line east of the Rockies for his boundary running across Alberta, Canada and down through West Texas to the Mexican border. This book covers 640 species and with just a bit more effort the whole continent could have been featured. Instead we now have to wait for the next volume: Western Birds..???, which is bound to have a lot of overlap with volume one and possibly weight in also at almost 2 kg.

“That said, Crossley’s contribution has been significant. The amount of work that goes into this new book is staggering. The first thing that strikes you are the colour pages, they are collages of landscape photographs with numerous images of the bird photo-shopped all across the background. Common birds occupy a whole page, rarer species get ½ page, accidentals just ¼ and no distribution map. Or rather, it is not quite that simple; while the full-page species are presented in a fairly uniform manner, the other pages do not appear to have a fixed design grid. Some birds occupy a narrow strip on the page, others are fitted in with 3, 4 or 5 species on a page in boxes of various sizes. Together with a huge number of other inconsistencies, this adds to a somewhat chaotic impression of the book.

“This work is truly a monumental task. The author is a British birder who has made the States his home and settled in New Jersey. He comes across as a fun and hard-working guy who truly loves bird-watching, bird photography and modern technology. Check him out at this LINK. The author is incredibly productive and has taken more than 99% of all the photographs in the book including many rare and hard-to-get species. He probably hasn’t been to the high Arctic though, as many of the borrowed images are of Arctic sedentary species like Gyrfalcon and Rock Ptarmigan; and all the migratory Arctic breeders such as Lapland Longspur, Stilt Sandpiper etc are superimposed onto ab Eastern Seaboard winter quarter habitat.

“Like the individual images, the organisation of the material is unorthodox to use a neutral term, you might find it either a stroke of genius or alternatively bizarre and irritating. There are eight chapters with the birds lumped together as Swimming Waterbirds, Flying Waterbirds etc. But as you can imagine, this leads to some rather arbitrary decisions: Why is the American White Pelican a ‘Flying Waterbird’, when the Greater White-fronted Goose that you usually see flying or walking is a ‘Swimming Waterbird’? The small aquatic Green Kingfisher is in the peculiar ‘Miscellaneous Large Landbirds’ group.

“What I find most disturbing is that throughout the book there is no mention of the taxonomic relationship between birds, not even to family. For those of us who try to broaden the public appreciation and understanding of the science of nature, this would seem as a step backwards.

“Text entries for each species are very brief and mainly relate to ID features, even the opening paragraph that is supposed to cover habits. There is no information about extra-limital range (that I always find interesting, but maybe the Americans less so), and little or no info on ecology and breeding habits. Sometimes (but not always) the call is described.

“This book is the latest developed weapon in the current ongoing ‘war’ for supremacy among bird books, between guides based on illustrations and others based on photographs. Traditionally, illustrated field guides always had the upper hand, as they could easily cover all species occurring within their area. But photographic guides have their followers, and especially in developed regions like Europe and Australia with many experienced photographers covering all the species, they too can be complete. In North America there is a wonderful choice of titles, I prefer the new Smithsonian guide (Floyd, 2008) because … you guessed it! … it covers the whole continent. Other photographic field guides have fought back by deploying the new digital technology to enhance images. Sterry (2004) (left) goes as far as building up photographic illustrations of difficult-to-get species in Photoshop from scratch; he is honest enough to tell the readers which images are ‘hand-made’ … there is no way you can tell the difference on the plates!?

“Crossley employs a different tactic in his photographic offensive. He piles numerous images onto each plate; some close, some distant, some blurred, some sharp, some perched, some flying etc-etc. The book claims it is ‘interactive’, as you have to ID the distant images yourself, personally I found that somewhat annoying.

“The book could have been improved by some stronger outside editing work, it is too much a one-man’s job and filled with tons of inconsistencies that add to the confusion and the clutter. A few examples in no particular order:

• Why are the font type and size on the back flap different from the fonts on the front flap?
• The front endpaper is repeated and expanded later in the book and adds nothing of value.
• The picture pages are called ‘plates’ in the introduction but ‘scenes’ on the back cover.
• Most species has an ID paragraph in the text, but the Caspian Tern and many of the rarer species don’t.
• Most birds are superimposed on a landscape background, but the Willet on page 162 has conventional divided photographs, and the Black Rail on p 214 is an ordinary habitat photo, why?
• On some plates the background is sharp, on others it is out of focus.
• Most plates have major close-up individual images ID’ed to sex and age, many others don’t, the author provides some explanation to this in the Introduction that is not quite satisfactory.
• What are those fluffy clouds and phony rainbows doing on some of the pages?
• The distribution maps come in all shapes and sizes and sometimes (but not always) they include all of the continent and occasionally also Mexico and Cuba (???).

“So, it seems that this is a bird book that you either love or hate. On internet mail-order sites the book mainly gets top-mark reviews, while a small minority of readers finds it truly and utterly useless.

“My conclusion? I will recommend the book to anyone who wants to learn more about North American birds and their gizz (general impression and shape). But I would also recommend that the publishers improve on some of the editorial issues mentioned for the next edition. Personally, I will not be retiring my old National Geographic field guide just yet.”

Morten Strange
Editor-in-chief of Nature Watch Magazine”
August 2011

Floyd, T. (2008). Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America. HarperCollins, New York.
2. Peterson, R.T. (1961). A Field Guide to Western Birds; Second Edition. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
3. Scott, S.L. (1987). Field Guide to the Birds of North America; Second Edition. National Geographic Society, Washington.
4. Sterry, P. (2004). Birds of the Mediterranean; A Photographic Guide. A&C Black, London.

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