The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds by Richard Crossley. First published 2011. As reviewed and pictured: Softcover flexibound, 530 pages.
I have to admit, I've been looking forward to this book for well over a year (some sample pages have been available online since at least late 2009). Now that I have the book in my hands, I'm just as excited. This book - a totally different kind of bird guide - does not disappoint!
The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds covers some 640 species in a truly unique way. Each species is presented on its own plate, more appropriately called a "scene" by the author.
But even from the introductory pages, this bird guide is unique. The index is totally visual. First, a summary of the bird families are presented. Next, 16 pages of more detailed index show the most common birds in profile and in relative size. Overall the birds are arranged in two main categories, waterbirds and landbirds, and then into sub-categories. They are arranged as you might find them in the field, rather than strictly taxonomically.
Next, the introductory pages clearly state the purpose of the book: to make the reader a better birder. As I first paged through the scenes, one of my initial thoughts was that this is more like a study book for birders, rather than a traditional guide to be used in the field. The author goes a step further, writing: "Although this book will be used for reference, the principal reason for its design is to be interactive with the reader - much like a workbook at school." There's no use comparing this guide to field guides, I think, because it's simply not a field guide. It's a new tool for birders to use as a study guide.
Here I'd like to briefly mention the size of the book, which took me by surprise at first. It is BIG, about 7.5" across and 10" tall. I'm showing it here next to the Sibley eastern guide for comparison. For such a strongly visual book, meant to be studied rather than referred to in the field, the size is just right.
The scenes themselves are a pleasure to study. The photographs, over 10,000 put together (nearly all of which, remarkably, were taken by the author himself), are arranged to show as many different plumages and positions for each species as possible. Birds are shown in flight, swimming, perching, hunting, socializing, feeding, preening, even mating. Some of the scenes are busier than others, and at first glance I have the childish instinct to treat the busiest ones like a puzzle, trying to find each individual bird among the foliage, seascape, marsh, or urban landscape. The backgrounds vary wildly, of course, presenting the birds in the type of habitat in which we're likely to find them. Human structures and even humans themselves appear in many of the scenes, for that is where and how we often see birds. For example, hummingbirds are shown by sugar water feeders, Barn Swallows by farm implements, American Oystercatchers (and others) by the Cape May lighthouse, and Chipping Sparrows on a golf course. Here are some example scenes found in the book.
As you can see in the sample images, a range map and brief text accompanies each scene. The text first focuses on behavior in very familiar language. ID clues are also provided, pointing out differences between similar species and reinforcing what is shown in the scene.
Full-page scenes are given to the more common species, with some less common birds being shown on a half or quarter-page scene. The text accompanying the smallest, quarter-page scenes is smaller than the text which accompanies the other scenes, which I find extremely distracting. Mixing font sizes in this way seems unprofessional to me and I would hope this could be fixed in subsequent versions. There, you have my only major beef with this book.
Throughout the text, four-letter alpha codes are used to refer to the birds. These abbreviations help keep the lines of text shorter, but they can be a bit tricky to follow, especially for those not used to referring to birds this way. Take this portion of the Alder Flycatcher text, for example:
"Most migrate later than WIFL in fall. Formerly conspecific with WIFL. Song: fee-beo, more monotone than similar but more emphatic fitz-bew of WIFL. ALFL occasionally gives a more WIFL-like song - beware! Call: a pip -- different from other empids and often likened to HAWO."
I have to stop and think about these abbreviations, so it's a bit distracting. However, as a budding bird bander, I'm happy to learn these codes and I'm sure this book will help me with that. Alpha codes are also sometimes used more widely in the birding community, so it's not bad for all birders to become at least familiar with them. The alpha codes are even used in the index. Two other indexes sort the birds by scientific name and common name.
I'm really looking forward to studying this book, which will take some time, for sure. It definitely warrants long-term and repeated study. As excited as I am, I can't help thinking about the rumors that a western version is in the works. Indeed, on Crossley's own website, there are already placeholders for more books: The Crossley ID Guide - British Birds; The Crossley ID Guide - Western Birds; and The Mystery Guide.
I give The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds 5 Goldfinches out of 5.
Disclosure: This is my own original, honest review of The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds, a copy of which was provided to me free of charge by the publisher.