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.
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.
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:
Quick Key to Species 6
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
Upland Gamebirds 219
Miscellaneous Larger Landbirds 269
Aerial Landbirds 315
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:
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.