Three days ago I happen to glance out the front window of our townhouse and found myself staring at a bald eagle swooping by, presumably after picking up one of the neighborhood dogs or small children1 A few minutes later, the doorbell rang. When I opened the door, no one was there but a package was on the stoep. And in the package was my new The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds! It was almost a Harry Potter moment.

The Crossley ID Guide is a unique and special bird book. It is not exactly a pocket field guide, unless you are the Jolly Green Giant and have pockets the size of … well, a big book. Nor is it a coffee table pretty-picture book, though it does have pretty pictures. The Crossley ID Guide is a large format systematic bird identification resource with a number of unique features that make it well worth its remarkably low price. (The guide costs 35 bucks at the publisher, but about 20 with the link above, apparently … but you may be able to get a free copy, see below!). Let me walk you through the guide.

The first thing you find when you open the book is the obligatory set of pictures of many birds on a few pages, like the Peterson guide’s silhouettes, but totally different. First, there are pages and pages of these pictures. Second, they are not silhouettes, but rather, actual tiny pictures of actual birds. Third, they are to scale, by group (not to scale across pages or groups).

This is brilliant, considering that, as the author notes but we all already knew, size is the number one criterion for initial bird ID, but also, it is often the last criterion for more specific identification. For instance, a fast flying swooping bird is a woodpecker, but you’d guess hairy/downy vs. pileated based on size. Later, when it lands, you’d use a more refined measure of size to differentiate between hairy and downy. These pages of birds grouped mainly by habitat and behavioral categories but all of the same scale provides an excellent, visually fast and powerful key.

The pictures of the birds are those slightly strange touched-up photograph style pictures that post-dates the largely failed photo-only Audubon guides (failed, at least, in my view). These touched up photos bring the photographic method closer to drawings, and drawings closer to photos, almost making the choice between the two irrelevant. This method of depicting birds is used throughout the guide.

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In the main part of the guide, these images are displayed in a diorama style that is unique among modern bird guides (though I’ve seen this in some older books). When you look at the birds on a page, you see them perched, flying, landing, taking off, immature, male, female, moulting, less immature, adult, feeding, and otherwise behaving. Some are near and some are far. They are depicted with typical backgrounds … a marsh, a semi-cloudy sky, the underparts of a bridge, bushes, whatever is appropriate.

The truth is that most birds you see are far away and flying. Thus, having far away barely identifiable pictures along with up close standing still and close-by swooping outside your townhouse window pictures and the rest of it allows you to have a much higher chance of seeing something in the book that you saw in real life. I haven’t used the guide yet to determine the identity of some tricky warbler or far flung sparrow, elusive medium size hawk or odd shorebird, but I have every confidence it will serve well.

The diorama style is, presumably, why the book is relatively large format. This could not be done in a pocket guide. Of course, you can take this book to the field with you because you probably have a day pack or shoulder pack large enough, and you’ll probably find it worthwhile.

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There are more than 600 of these diorama like scenes depicting over 10,000 images. The guide also has the usual maps and well organized verbal descriptions. Also of note: The obligatory Bird Topography images (showing what the various bits of various birds are called by birders) are more disparate (more kinds of birds) and detailed than any other guide of which I’m aware.

The birds are organized in a non-phylogenetic way, but rather by categories of habitat, behavior, and overall form, which turns out to be semi-phylogenetic. One could argue that a phylogenetic organization is better because it serves a similar purpose, is more educational, and pays proper homage to the process that put those birds in place to begin with (evolution). A non-phylogenetic ordering may even facilitate undesirable misconceptions about taxonomic diversity and evolution. I don’t quite buy the author’s comment that the taxonomic relationship among birds changes all the time anyway (it hardly ever changes and the last couple of major revisions have brought bird taxonomy to a point where we are likely to see very little change in the future). So, while I accept the logic behind the arrangement, I think I would still prefer a stricter taxonomic system.

Speaking of which, here is the table of contents:

Preface 5
Quick Key to Species 6

Introduction 22
How to Use This Book 22
How to Be a Better Birder 25

Species Accounts Waterbirds 36
Swimming Waterbirds 36
Flying Waterbirds 98
Walking Waterbirds 144

Landbirds
Upland Gamebirds 219
Raptors 231
Miscellaneous Larger Landbirds 269
Aerial Landbirds 315
Songbirds 332

Acknowledgments 517
Index 518
Shorthand (Alpha Codes) 518
Scientific Names 522
Common Names 526

I’ve always said that you should have more than one bird book for the region you live in. That’s still true, and number one is still Peterson for reasons I’ve stated elsewhere (the drawings, while not “real,” are written a birder’s language, in a sense, and provide a systematic way of conceptualizing bird identification markers, and it fits in your ‘pocket.’) The very strong features of the Crossley guide, however, prompt me to add it without reservation to the list of bird books you must have on hand if birding in the Eastern US or Canadian region is your thing. I’m going to put one on the coffee table at the cabin and one in the bird pack that we haul everywhere. It might displace one of the spare el-cheapo binocs. Which would be fine.

Other bird book reviews:

The Young Birder’s Guide: A Bird Book for the Middle Schooler

What bird field guides do you really need?

A New Field Guide to the Birds from The Smithsonian

Bird and Mammal Field Guides for Africa

Another review of the guide: Review of The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds by Corey at 10,000 Birds.

Want a free copy of the guide? Check this out: Fun, Fun, Fun Crossley ID Guide Giveaway

1Only kidding about the dogs and children.

Comments

  1. #1 Benton Jackson
    March 11, 2011

    I agree, this book is fantastic. I think it’s biggest use will be as a study book. You can get the “feel” for a bird by looking at these pictures. I think that’s more important than field marks.

  2. #2 Hadlee
    March 11, 2011

    Did the guide cause you to revise your identification of the Bald Eagle?

  3. #3 Markk
    March 12, 2011

    I love the look of this book. It is a great art book. =BUT=

    For me, it is terrible as a bird book. Just the opposite of Peterson. I got to look at it at my bird club. It was definitely a love it or hate it experience for our members.

    The photos give me that dizzy feeling when that I also get I watch badly shot HD TV. Or early Computer realistic graphics. I think the pictures kind of fall into that eerie valley like human CGI figures.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    March 12, 2011

    Markk, I would agree that this is the opposite of Peterson, but that is why I like it. Peterson, as I’ve said, is produced in the language of birders … stylized systematically keyed species. It recognizes that the best way to identify a bird is not really in a line-up or by a realistic representation.

    Nonetheless, Crossley gives a set of views and depictions that in fact show things we see in real life but that are not in the idealized book. I’ve always said you should have more then one bird book, and none of them should be that older style photographic book (the original Audubon guies, etc.).

    But yes, I can easily see that this would be a love vs hate thing for many birders.

    Hadlee, no it didn’t in this case. I’m still waiting for the difficult ID to come along to see how that goes!

  5. #5 John
    March 12, 2011

    Is there something like this for the Pacific NW?

  6. #6 cyberthrush
    March 14, 2011

    not specifically just for the Pacific NW, but yes Crossley is doing a ‘western’ version of the field guide, as well as some other area editions.
    I generally love the volume myself for reasons I won’t re-state here, but will mention that I think most people are so focused on the overpowering artwork that they’re missing just how good the actual text portions are (some of the best of any field guide I think).

  7. #7 Anne McCormack
    March 24, 2011

    I really like the guide too, and though those dioramas seem distracting or cluttered at first, if you give it some time, the unique features of this book come into focus. Glancing at the book at a meeting or in the book store is not enough to do it justice, as I wrote in my review. I definitely agree with Greg that everyone needs more than one bird identification book!