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A Bold New Bird Book

Michael Szpir

The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds (Princeton University Press, $35) is ruffling some feathers in the birding community. It is a book that you will either love or hate. Your reaction will depend largely on whether you like to have nature presented to you in an idealized way or whether you can tolerate some of the messiness of reality. Author and photographer Richard Crossley has a high tolerance for messiness—he tries to squeeze in as much reality as he can onto every printed page.

2011-05BREVSzpirFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageEach of the more than 600 species in the book is shown in a lifelike scene that is typical of the species’ habitat. Within that tableau, a species is represented by pictures that portray the bird at various distances, in a range of plumages and behaviors and at several ages.

Crossley crammed 10,000 photographs onto 640 plates, so, on average, each plate presents one or more species in about 15 different ways. But some birds, such as the black rail, are represented by only a single photograph, whereas others, such as the broad-winged hawk, are depicted 40 times on a single plate, as shown at right. (The 40th hawk is tricky; see if you can find it.)

It can be very difficult to identify a species from the tiny images that show the bird at a great distance, because few of the key field marks are recognizable. Why put such images in an identification guide? Crossley calls it reality birding. He believes that you can become a better birder by studying the distant birds and comparing them to the larger close-up images. By noticing the similarities between the different images, you will learn to focus on the features that remain constant for a particular species. The rationale is compelling, and I think Crossley’s approach might actually work.

Although the plates are supposed to do most of the work in this book, Crossley does provide some text, captions and range maps to complement the images. The captions are fairly lean, and Crossley saves space by using the four-letter alpha code that bird banders use as shorthand for each species. Beginning birders might find the codes a little intimidating, but all of the codes are identified in an index at the back of the book.

Much more can, and will, be said about this book. If you detest images that have been obviously manipulated using a computer, then you will almost certainly not like this book. If you prefer paintings to photographs in your guidebooks, then this book is not for you either.

For those who can tolerate Crossley’s novel approach, The Crossley ID Guide will most likely serve as a guide that beginning and intermediate birders can study at home. The book’s massive size—it is both larger and heavier than The Sibley Guide to Birds—and its internal organization do not lend themselves to easy use in the field. I believe that Crossley recognizes this fact, which is why the book is called an ID guide rather than a field guide.

And, in case you were wondering, I love it.—Michael Szpir

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