More than 30 bird identification guides line my book shelves, so I guess I’m a collector. Most are very good. Some even include CDs.
But they all follow the same basic format — artwork or photos of a few individuals along with a range map and brief written description. Which guide is best is an individual choice. The newest ID guide, The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds by Richard Crossley (2011, Princeton University Press, $35) is different.
The promotional materials describe it as “revolutionary.” That certainly got my attention and raised my expectations. I’m pleased to report that my expectations were exceeded.
The Crossley ID Guide is truly a new way to learn bird identification, but it is not a field guide. At 7.5 by 10 inches and 544 pages, it’s simply too big to be carried afield.
You might keep a copy in the car while birding, but it’s primarily a reference book and study guide. It has certainly earned a place on my desk. The first thing I noticed was that each species was identified by three names: common, scientific, and a sometimes clever four-letter “alpha code” borrowed from the bird-banding community.
For one-word names such as sora, killdeer and dickcissel, the abbreviation is simply the first four letters of the bird’s common name: SORA, KILL and DICK.
Most common names, however, consist of a noun and one or two modifiers. The abbreviation then becomes some combination of the first letters of the modifiers and the noun.
Purple finch, for example, becomes PUFI, northern mockingbird becomes NOMO, and downy woodpecker becomes DOWO. At first, I was baffled by the abbreviation for the black-throated green warbler — BTNW.
Then I realized it would be confused with the black-throated gray warbler (BTYW). So, in this case the last letter of the color modifier became part of the abbreviation. If nothing else, the new Crossley Guide has turned North America’s birds into four-letter words.
But there is much more that makes this book “revolutionary.” While traditional field guides focus on individual birds, Crossley has created large realistic scenes for each species. The most common species get a full page. Less common species get a half or a quarter page.
In all cases, however, several images in the foreground are large and feature an adult male, adult female, and sometimes a juvenile bird. In the background, smaller images show birds perched and in flight.
It’s reality birding in a book. As I paged through the book, scenes of wetlands and woodlands seemed particularly realistic. A flock of great egrets (GREG) with some laughing gulls (LAGU) and ducks in the background put me right in a New Jersey salt marsh. The red-eyed vireo (REVI) plate illustrates how difficult it can be to see these greenish birds on the tree tops.
Though too late for me, The Crossley ID Guide is the perfect text for beginning birders, and even experts will marvel at its thoroughness. Thanks to digital photography, each plate is a landscape of appropriate habitat and the images of each bird are positioned to give a feel for what it’s like to see the birds in nature.
For example, six Carolina wrens (CAWR) complete a scene of several fallen logs overgrown with Virginia creeper. The dark-eyed junco (DEJU) plate includes 11 individuals in a backyard snowscape.
The northern cardinal (NOCA) plate clearly depicts how juveniles differ from adult females – young cardinals have a dark bill while the adult female’s bill is bright reddish orange, just like the adult male’s bill. The scope of The Crossley ID Guide is almost unimaginable. The 640 scenes are composed from 10,000 of the author’s own photos.
Few birders have a life-list of 640 species; that’s just Crossley’s North American photo life list. Plus a western edition is in the works. Because of the emphasis on images, the book contains minimal text by design.
A range map, a brief habitat description, and a few ID tips accompany each plate. But then imagery is the star of Crossley’s book.
Though raised in England, Crossley now lives in Cape May, N.J., where he has become one of birding’s major players.