Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A different kind of bird guide

American birders are used to birding field guides that can be easily carried into the field where the user can refer to them when they see an unusual bird. Richard Crossley comes from another tradition. He grew up in England where the practice was to take a notebook and pencil with you when birding to make notes about or draw what you saw. Then you returned to base and compared your notes or drawings to what was shown in your birding guide books. That tradition has informed his recently released magnum opus, The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds.

This is not a book to carry into the field with you, unless you are planning to combine your birding with weight-lifting. This is a BIG book. But it is definitely a book that you would want to refer to after your return from the field for it provides a wealth of information about birds.


Here, for comparison of size, are a few of my guides laid out on my dining room table. Crossley is on the left; next is the recently published Stokes guide which is also a big book. Then, in order, are the National Geographic, the Sibley, the Kaufmann, and, lastly, my old Peterson guide.

The book is big at least in part because of Crossley's revolutionary approach in presenting his species pictures. He has taken photographs of the individual bird species in many different plumages and poses and placed them (using modern photographic technology) in a naturalistic setting that depicts the bird's normal habitat. The result is a kind of diorama of bird activity for each species.

Thus, when you look at a species' page, you are looking, in effect, at a flock of the birds as they might appear in the wild if you saw that many of them together. They are flying or perching or walking or eating or singing. As you gaze at them in all these different poses, Crossley's idea is that you will be seeing the birds close to the way that you actually saw your bird in the wild, rather than the more structured way that birds often appear in field guides.


For example, this is the Crossley page for the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. The bird is shown in several plumages and different poses within a setting such as you would be likely to see the bird in naturally.


This, on the other hand, is the way that the Stokes guide, which also uses photographs, solves the problem of showing the different plumages of the same bird.


And this is the Sibley which uses the traditional approach of depicting the bird against a white background and pointing out field marks that help to identify the bird. This is the method that was pioneered by that father of field guides and of modern birding, Roger Tory Peterson.

I think Crossley's idea is a brilliant innovation and a step forward in the production of bird guides. Moreover, it is one that I think is likely to prove very popular with my fellow birders.

This guide is short on text. Crossley states right up front that he doesn't like text. For him, the picture's the thing. If one picture is worth a thousand words and this book contains over 10,000 pictures...well, you do the math.

If you love birds, whether you are a dedicated and obsessive birder, a backyard birder, or just someone who enjoys birds and wants to know more about them, you need to check this book out on your next trip to the bookstore. You might find it is just what you've been looking for.

(Full disclosure: A complimentary copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher for the purposes of this review.)

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