The Crossley ID Guide from Princeton University Press has long been anticipated and has certainly been the subject of many discussions among birders across North America.  Now that it is in the hands of reviewers across the country we can see that it is unlike any other field guide we have ever seen.  It is larger, has more images, and a completely different approach than Sibley or Peterson or Stokes or Kaufman or any other field guide to birds.  Each plate is a photoshopped piece of habitat populated by a single species seen from multiple angles and distances.  For example, the Common Yellowthroat plate has thick brush in the colors of early autumn as the habitat.  An adult male bird sings in the left foreground while a first-winter male stands in profile in the right foreground. A little further back in the well-photoshopped scene are female birds, both adult and first-winter, and another first-winter male.  There are eight different flight shots in the background, including shots of the male’s display flight, something I have never seen, and other shots showing the front and back of yellowthroats in typical perched postures.  Altogether, on the one plate devoted to Geothylpis trichas, there are at least eighteen different photographs of the species, to say nothing of a range map, descriptions of both behavior and appearance, and the four-letter code for the bird, COYE.* Is my description not enough?  Well, as Richard Crossley, the gregarious and not-very-shy author of this guide says in his introduction, “A picture says 1000 words!” which is why the plate is reproduced at left (and if you click it you can get a bigger view).

Before I go further into the content of the book I have to talk about the 800-pound gorilla in the room.  Well, maybe 800-pounds is a little bit of an exaggeration but not by that much.  The Crossley ID Guide Eastern Birds is HUGE!  It is by far the largest field guide for North American birds that I have encountered and it only covers half of the continent.  It is taller, deeper, and as thick as what must be considered the golden standard of North American field guides, Sibley, and Sibley covers the whole of North America (and is itself reluctantly lugged out into the field by buff birders, though the eastern and western volumes of his guides are much easier to carry).  This makes it highly unlikely that Crossley will ever be used for what is the ostensible purpose of a field guide, which is identifying birds in the field.  This may be why it is called an “ID Guide” rather than a field guide.

The Crossley ID Guide stacked up with Sibley, Peterson, Stokes, NatGeo, and Peterson West (that last one was included as a representative of the “normal” size for eastern or western guides)

If The Crossley ID Guide is not going to be used as a field guide in the field, for what purpose can the purchaser of this book use it?  Crossley tells us in his introduction:

…the principal reason for its design is to be interactive with the reader — much like a workbook at school.

When looking at a plate for the first time, try to view it without any preconceived ideas — just an open mind. Simply ask yourself: ‘What do I see?’  Be careful that you do not look at it based on any preconceived notions of ‘What am I supposed to see.’  In particular, look at the smaller images in the background, because the chances are that this is what you will actually see in real life.  By zooming in and out of the bird images, try to absorb the things that remain constant–shape, patterns of color, and so forth.  If you can create a good mental image of these patterns, it will serve you well in the field.

Oh, so we’ve been given homework in our “workbooks” have we?  Every birder can certainly stand to study more images of birds and no matter how much you know there is always more to learn.  But looking at little tiny static images (and the ones in the background can be positively minuscule) is, in this reviewer’s opinion, of minimum value.  Beginning birders need to be out in the field looking at birds to get their gestalt.  They will not get it from field guides or ID guides no matter how many images there are.  Expert birders already know the gestalt of most birds they are likely to encounter and are dealing with the absurdly difficult identifications like differentiating empid flycatchers, a task for which Crossley’s book does little more than any other North American field guide.  This leaves the birders in the middle, a category in which I include myself.  What do we get from Crossley?

What I think the birder that is between novice and expert gets is the most valuable aspect of this book: the sheer number of pictures of each species from multiple angles.  For example, this past weekend while birding with a bunch of birders we flushed an Ammodramus sparrow that we were sure was a Seaside Sparrow but we only got a back view as it flew weakly over the marsh away from us.  Looking at Crossley’s book (when we got back to the car, I am not inviting a hernia by carrying that thing), which includes an image of a Seaside Sparrow flying away from the observer, confirmed our impression.  Lots of images of birds from many angles, in many poses and in flight, are always useful and not having to search all over the internet to find the image you need is great.  I think this is of limited value to a novice, however, who is more likely to get a fleeting glimpse of a bird and then page through Crossley until they find an image “just like the bird I saw” which may or may not be remotely like the bird that they actually saw.

Of course, there is more to this book than just the utility of it.  Some of the plates are simply gorgeous.  The Summer Tanager plate, the Loggerhead Shrike plate, and the Common Loon plate all stand out to me for some reason, probably because Crossley catches the feel of their habitat very well.  The shorebird plates are all well-illustrated with a huge number of images which is only to be expected from one of the coauthors of The Shorebird Guide.  The raptor plates are excellent as well, with the many flight shots of each bird showing how variable an appearance raptors can have.  Sometimes the attempts at making a pretty plate are too over the top, like in the two plates that feature a rainbow in the background.  Should we use the presence or absence of leprechauns as a field mark?  Despite the occasional rainbow the plates are largely a success aesthetically and serve their purpose of showing each species in many plumages from many angles.

I have one final criticism of The Crossley ID Guide and that is that it seems to have been put out a bit too hastily.  Blank pages between sections, mislabeling “Saltmarsh Sparrow” as “Sharp-tailed Sparrow” and including a family of Mallards on the Cinnamon Teal plate are all problems that should have been caught and addressed prior to publication.  No project this size is ever perfect but all of those errors were eminently catchable.  The good news is that there is a web site for all things related to this book and it includes a page where errors are corrected.  Make sure to check out Crossley Books for more information.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I like The Crossley ID Guide and I think it is absolutely awesome that someone has come up with a new way of presenting bird images in a guide format.  But I don’t think that it knocks Sibley from the top spot among North American field guides.  It is a great reference, a beautiful book, and I strongly recommend that birders buy a copy as it is well worth the $35.00 cover price (already available for $21.00 at Amazon).

Everyone has been reviewing this book!  Read more reviews of The Crossley ID Guide in the bird blog-o-sphere on Nature Remains, The Birdchaser, Steve Blain, Another Bird Blog, The Urban Birder, The Birder’s Library, Ivory-Bills Live, and Avian Review.  If you have reviewed The Crossley ID Guide as well and I missed it please leave your link in the comments.

Book Information from Princeton University Press

Cloth Flexibound | 2011 | $35.00 / £24.95
544 pp. | 7-1/2 x 10 | 10,000 color images.

e-Book | 2011 | $35.00 | ISBN: 978-1-4008-3923-0

*I am not a big fan of the four-letter codes.  Sure, they are a nice shorthand and using them means that more text can be fit onto each page, but they are also a barrier to entry for novices who have a hard enough time learning common names (and whose energy would be better spent learning the much-more-useful scientific names rather than four-letter codes).  Seriously, other than being shorter what value do the four-letter codes have?  None.  Well, actually, as we learned at the Superbowl of Birding, it is fun to call someone a “Crossley 493!”

Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy and Desmond Shearwater. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.