Although I own more than 20 field guides, and have used some of them until they are falling apart, you will rarely see me review them in a limited space where I can only cover eight books in a year. However useful they may be, most are boring to write about and read about. Virtually all follow a formula invented by Roger Tory Peterson in A Field Guide to the Birds in the 1930s, and prefigured by Ernest Thompson Seton’s black-and-white duck drawings decades before that: a series of simplified silhouettes of birds in various plumages, arranged to compare and contrast. The formula can work better or be made harder to use by the ability of the artists. Although anything accurate is serviceable, some give more, such as the quirky portraits by Norman Lighton in the first edition of Roberts’ Birds of South Africa. Great artists like Lars Jonsson can make just looking at their guides a pleasure, while others—have you ever seen the first edition of The Birds of Nepal ?—can make you doubt that any bird ever looked like that. David Sibley, using both science and art, probably attained the pinnacle of the formula. But finally all are more similar than not.
I had vowed not to review field guides until something new came along, and now not one, but two, very different new field guides have appeared. The one you can’t avoid is the Crossley—big, bold, ambitious, brash, and well promoted—but it really is “something new under the sun.” Crossley seems to be an extreme version of the English “twitcher,” in turn a more extreme version of birder than most of ours. He is described as “an internationally acclaimed birder and photographer… who, by age twenty-one, had hitchhiked more than 100,000 miles chasing birds across his native Britain and Europe.” The book itself is called a “stunningly illustrated book [that]…revolutionizes birding by providing the first real-life approach to identification.” Can any book live up to such hype?
My answer is a guarded yes. Crossley’s approach is maximalist, over-the-top, selfpromoting, and not without humor. It is also genuinely new, about which I’ll have more to say in a moment. The book is huge for a field guide, bigger than the original Sibley, and may be a bit too big for the field, though it is perfect for such things as “car birding” for shorebirds and waterfowl at refuges. (I’ll doubtless take one to Bosque del Apache this winter to show visitors new birds.)
Which leads directly into its greatest virtues. In the past I have disliked photographic guides, because they freeze one individual member of a species in one moment of its life and do not portray a sort of Platonic archetype (the exact opposite of Sibley’s last refinement of the Peterson school). Crossley uses photographs but flies right past the problem, assembling clusters of each species going about their business against vivid natural or in some cases human backgrounds (his peregrines obviously live in New York City, and his Lesser Scaups on a lake by someone’s summer house, examples of the whimsy that leavens his serious ambitions).
I have a few mild reservations. The technique might not work quite as well for small forest birds, but small forest birds are harder to see to start with and this may merely reflect reality. And I see little reason for using the four-letter “alpha code” names that banders use to record data for a species; it’s irrelevant and not useful to most birders. But these are mere quibbles.
The Crossley ID Guide may be most useful for beginning or inexperienced birders; more advanced or aged birders like me may want more taxonomy or subtle texts like Kenn Kaufman’s Advanced Birding. But I would buy it for teaching those beginners and introducing them to identification at places like Bosque del Apache. The guide’s jacket copy says Crossley has multiple projects in the works. I will be eager to see all of them.
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