Wild Neighbors: Not Your Father’s Bird Guide?

By Joe Eaton
Tuesday March 22, 2011 - 08:16:00 PM
Ducks: Black scoters, probably at the Jersey Shore.
Richard Crossley
Ducks: Black scoters, probably at the Jersey Shore.
Warblers: A mob of yellow-rumped warblers, including the western Audubon's subspecies.
Richard Crossley
Warblers: A mob of yellow-rumped warblers, including the western Audubon's subspecies.

Birding, for such a quiet occupation, seems unusually prone to revolutions. In the old days, BP (Before Peterson) the custom was to shoot any bird of interest so you could examine the fine points of its plumage in the hand. Roger Tory Peterson’s first field guide changed all that. With somewhat schematic paintings and concise text, Peterson offered the ability to identify most birds through binoculars or a spotting scope. 

That set a template for successor bird guides, although presentation has varied. The Chandler Robbins/Arthur Singer book may have been the first to have text facing illustrations. The Audubon guides introduced photographs as an alternative to paintings. National Geographic’s entry incorporated new field marks from a new wave of birders. Sibley focused on a couple of species per page, going into more detail about variant plumages. A rash of specialty guides—to raptors, warblers, sparrows, hummingbirds, gulls—appeared. Kenn Kaufman pioneered with digitally tweaked photos. 

Now comes British-born Richard Crossley, yet another would-be revolutionary, who is out to change the way we look at birds. His Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds is new from Princeton University Press, which has impressive depth in field guides. Crossley is clearly trying to establish a brand, promising future volumes for western North America and Britain. 

There’s no question that this is a novel approach to bird identification. Peterson and his disciples showed multiple species on each color plate. In Crossley’s book, the more common and/or widespread species each have a page of their own. Regional specialties (Florida and south Texas) are allotted half a page; accidentals and vagrants, a quarter-page. 

But these are still busy pages. Using his own (excellent) photographs and photoshopping with abandon, Crossley presents an assortment of plumages and poses for each bird. The idea is to illustrate behavior as well as appearance; his birds are standing, sitting, swimming, flying, feeding, and occasionally mating. Plumage variants—age, sex, season, region—are labeled, but there are no Petersonian arrows pointing to key field marks. The backdrop for each illustration is the typical habitat for the species: salt marsh, tallgrass prairie, boreal forest, city street, and so on. 

Some of these work quite nicely, although I have to note the incongruity of a flock of solitary sandpipers. The Wilson’s storm-petrel montage, to pick just one, is beautifully done. I like the stern-looking ospreys, and the inclusion of a mallard in the cackling goose plate for scale. A few of the smaller illustrations are problematic in terms of relative sizes: the northern beardless-tyrannulet, a miniscule flycatcher, is made to look about the same size as the adjacent greater pewee. 

Birds are grouped by habitat and lifestyle rather than in taxonomic order. That’s always changing, says Crossley, and he has a point. Hawks and owls are together, as are “walking waterbirds” (shorebirds, waders, rails), “swimming waterbirds” (ducks, grebes, loons, auks), and “flying waterbirds” (gulls, terns, petrels, pelicans.) Coots and phalaropes are with the “walking waterbirds” (go figure.) Songbirds have their own section. Crossley caught the most recent round of taxonomic splits but appears to have missed a few higher-level changes: storks are no longer considered relatives of the New World vultures. Corrections and addenda will show up on an accompanying website ( This may be the first guide to use banding-code abbreviations for every species. Too much like text-messaging for my taste, but some will appreciate it. 

The accompanying text is, in the Peterson tradition, brief and 

informal. Maybe more informal than American birders are used to: 

the northern goshawk, for example, is “large and nasty,” the black vulture has a “hideous gray head,” the ruddy duck is “chunky and punky.” Crossley emphasizes the way a bird moves, which is useful. Songs and calls are sometimes described (the northern mockingbird is “a singer with a big voice that has driven my wife mad”), but not consistently. You’d never know the loggerhead shrike sings, and not badly either. 

Although it covers a fair number of western species, either as Great Plains residents or strays to the east, I would expect the Crossley guide to have a primarily regional appeal. California birders may want to wait for the western counterpart. Then again, many birders, like birds, are highly mobile. If I were headed east and had room in my luggage, I’d take this along. 

Room is a significant factor. This is a big book: it outweighs the one-volume Sibley by a pound, and would not fit in the typical pocket. The heft would make it inconvenient for field use unless you had a caddy. (“Hand me the Crossley, would you?”) It’s more the kind of thing you page through in the evening or on rainy weekends in anticipation of your next day out. 

I’ve shown my review copy to birders at several levels of proficiency, with generally positive reactions. Crossley is not for people who derive great satisfaction from being able to identify third-cycle hybrid gulls. (But if you’re that kind of person, you already own the gull book.) The consensus: this would be really useful for novice and intermediate birders, and even old dogs can learn a trick or two from it.