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Crossley: The Crossley ID Guide

Literacy—the production, distribution, and reception of written texts—is so much a part of our daily lives that we sometimes forget it has a history. In fact, though, literacy has changed constantly and massively over the five millennia or so we’ve been at it. Whenever new media have supplanted old, the way we present material—and what material we adjudge worth presenting—has necessarily shifted, too. But not always at the same time. As the codex replaced the scroll, as the print took over from the manuscript, and now as digital forms push aside the bound book, there has been an inevitable leapfrogging lag between content and the technologies for their communication. And we all know what happens when you pour new wine into old wineskins.

The Crossley ID Guide - Eastern Birds & Spine 360 The newest brew from the birder’s vineyard is Richard Crossley’s The Crossley ID Guide, an impressive work by any standard. There are more than 10,000 (!) photographs of well over 600 species; perhaps the greatest accomplishment here is just how many of those birds are depicted in flight. Though the guide covers only the “eastern” states and provinces, it includes a great many more typically western species, too, among them the specialties of the Black Hills and Pine Ridge, which are given short shrift (if any shrift at all!) in competing titles. Crossley’s texts—both the brief species accounts and the prose introductions to larger groups—are engaging and accurate, and the half dozen pages “How to Be a Better Birder” will encourage beginners and many, many others to start looking at birds in fresh new ways.

This wealth of information, verbal and visual, should make The Crossley ID Guide absolutely essential to any birder’s bookshelf. But ay, there’s the rub. This is most emphatically not a work for the bookcase, at least not for any real live boards-and-pins bookcase.

Crossley has indeed provided us with an excitingly new concept for the bird guide (“revolutionary,” even, to use the breathless language of the jacket blurb)—but that concept far exceeds the potentials of the printed book as they have developed over the last nearly six hundred years. What we have here is in fact a series of printed and bound screen shots for what could have been and should have been (and might still be?) the first true electronic guide to the identification of North American birds.

To put it simply and bluntly, everything that is right with this guide as published would be even righter in digital form, and everything that is wrong with it would vanish. Take, for example, the images, the heart of Crossley’s guide (the first four words of his introduction? “I don’t like text”!). Sixteen pages at the front of the book are devoted to small photos of nearly every species in the book. The intention is that most birds will be identifiable with reference only to these images, but unfortunately, they are reproduced to scale, making the small rails and  the stints and some owls and many passerines not just undiagnosable but invisible on the printed page.

In the genuine e-guide that this should be, clicking on the smudge of a Semipalmated Sandpiper would “zoom” you to a full-screen portrait; another click would take you to the complete species plate, which features birds of all age and sex classes, perched and in flight, close at hand and far away, awake and asleep. “Hover” over the long-billed juvenile in the middle background, and a text could appear reminding you of the similarity between this species and Western Sandpiper. Click on the words “Western Sandpiper” (no need in a genuine e-book to save space with those annoying four-letter codes), and your screen splits to show you the plate for that species right next to the one you were looking at. Move your cursor to an open bill and you hear the flight call of a single bird; hover over the flock in the background and the guide plays the chatter of a loafing mass of peep.

All of the shortcomings of the printed plates—and there are not a few, unfortunately—could easily be overcome in a digital guide. Many, even most of the plates in my review copy are badly printed, with a focus so soft as to be blurry (not for a moment do I buy the notion that that fuzziness is meant as “realism”). Even the best plates have birds that are literally too small for me to see: unlike the fuzziness, that is intentional, an effort to replicate field conditions, but in a true e-guide, I could click and enlarge even the tiniest to see detail and difference.

I could brighten the dim views of the nightjars, and I could look at birds within or without the habitat backgrounds that are so welcome an innovation here (but how’d that Ladder-backed Woodpecker get into a palmetto thicket?). And there would be no need to squeeze the rarest birds—in many cases the most interesting birds—three or four to a printed page.

Richard Crossley may not “like text,” but what his new guide offers is without exception useful and fascinating—and would be even more so as a digital publication. The extensive introductory material could even be presented as video, and by allowing the identification notes to float over the images, they could be expanded virtually infinitely; indeed, the selection of pages on Crossley’s website already gives a very basic sense of how such annotation would work. And, as should go almost without saying, the text’s errors, infelicities, and inconsistencies could be corrected more or less continuously, rather than forcing the reader to hope for a better editorial effort in the next printing.

Note well that what I am describing is a genuine electronic book, not just another of the “apps” that are being sold with such success to a gullible birding public. A digital Sibley or National Geographic is really just a set of book pages on a screen, with the addition of a little sound; the final product carries over many of the disadvantages of the codex at the same time as it sheds the printed book’s many advantages, the equivalent of pouring old wine into hastily stitched wineskins.

What is so exciting about the new Crossley guide is that all of the material is already there, just itching to get out from between those so inflexible flexible covers and into a medium that will do it justice.

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Rick Wright

Rick Wright

Rick Wright studied French, German, philosophy, and biology at the University of Nebraska. Following a detour to Harvard Law School, he took the Ph.D. at Princeton University in 1990. He held appointments as Assistant Professor of German at the University of Illinois, Reader in Art and Archaeology at Princeton, and Associate Professor of Medieval Studies at Fordham. Rick was a department editor at Birding from 2004 to 2008 and editor of Winging It from 2005 to 2007. He leads birding and birds-and-art tours for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, and lives in northern New Jersey with his wife, Alison Beringer, and their chocolate lab, Gellert.
Rick Wright

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  • LWSexson

    I tend to agree with the comments. Very good insight.

  • Mike Fung

    Your review is as good as the book would be as an e-guide.
    On a broader note, all new guides should be e-guides to give birders the full benefits of the digital format. It would also encourage more young, tech-savy people to become birders.

  • By all accounts, Crossley’s new book is not a FIELD guide. It’s a desk reference. Converting it to electronic format will make it more convenient for those who have iphones or ebooks or whatever. I don’t own an iphone and I’m unlikely to buy one no matter how much peer pressure the guys with Leicas apply. Call me a geezer, but there’s nothing that will supplant the affordability and utility of a simple, well written field guide made out of paper.

    Do I really need more fancy gadgets that I will, at some point, leave on the roof of the car as I drive away?

  • Laura Erickson

    What an interesting review, Rick. I can’t think of a single point you make that I disagree with.

  • Where did I say anything about using this work in the field, Mike? It should be electronic not for portability–like most birders, I carry only bins and a notebook and a pencil–but to make the wealth of information it contains accessible in the best possible way.

  • You’re right–along with the new approach, there could be a new delivery system. I imagine the publisher will make that move before too long.

  • Nice review, Rick. Maybe print guides are going out of style.

    I was glad to see cities in some of Crossley’s backgrounds, as well as houses, power lines, and even people. While most of his landscapes seem pristine, other photos acknowledge the extent to which people have altered the worlds birds live in.

    I was wondering if you thought his images, which are literally PACKED with birds, make each species appear superabundant? That seems to me an odd implication of his guide.

  • I was responding to “all new guides should be e-guides to give birders…”

    Like Rick, I’m a notebook and binoculars guy, but I’m old, too (in birder years). Not everyone has birded long enough to be confident in the field without a guide. iPhone eguides have their limitations, one of which is that the absent-minded (like me) will leave them somewhere stupid. Another is (like $1500 binoculars) they exclude the less financially endowed.

  • Robert kyse

    The book is inspiring. As I turned the pages I was first struck by the
    richness of the presentation – finally a book that presented the vitality of
    habitat and the play of aspect with the interest of species variation. I
    found myself saying – yes that’s just what it looks like and I think I might
    have been there once.

    But I didn’t buy the book. I wanted to. I knew I would enjoy it. But it did
    not meet my standard of high practical value for the money. As beautiful as
    the book is, it only represents an incremental improvement as a reference
    book and no improvement as a useful field guide. And to tell the truth, even
    if it was a great improvement, I would not have bought it. The books I
    already have do the job.

    My phone just makes noise, my computer sits on my desk and I actually use
    street maps without global positioning. But no, I’m not a cranky old fart. I’m
    an impatient young fart. I want to leap frog over these ruminating present
    technologies to the near future were the possibilities discussed by Rick
    Wright exist.

    I would like to thank Rick for clarifying some of these thoughts for me.
    And, like him, I look forward to the book in an enhanced electronic format.
    But hopefully they’ll add a phone, internet and GPS so I can get rid of all
    my old clunkers at once.

  • Mike

    I remain skeptical that having small, distant photos of birds in natural backgrounds will improve identification. I will admit having birds in their natural backgrounds at a myriad of distances has a lot of rhetorical appeal. But how does this translate to making it easier to identify birds? So far I haven’t heard anyone make that leap in singing the praises of this book. Obviously this approach has to de-emphasize close call field marks, so what is this presentation replacing it with?

    As I see it, what you’re saying is that in a digital form you’d be able to see all the birds and zoom in on them and do stuff like eliminate the backgrounds. But wouldn’t that completely defeat the idea behind this guide? Isn’t zoomed in photos of birds with blank backgrounds already what, say, the Kaufmann guide does? Or if you want lots of views of birds up close, maybe you might want the Stokes guide that just came out.

    As for text, I also disagree there. One of the most useful parts of any bird guide I’ve seen IS the test. Where does the bird hang out? What kind of trees does it like? What does it eat? How does it move and behave? Where might it nest? These are all very helpful things to learn about birds that photos can’t communicate, in part because, well, photos can’t move. I have to say the guide that did this the best was those old out of date Audubon guides. All the text in those to me is great because it tells you a lot more than a photo ever could.

  • Jim M.

    Mostly agree with Mike. The review also ignores the fact that we already have good electronic photo field guides, e.g. Thayer’s Birds of North America, that allow you to zoom in on numerous photos of birds. There would be nothing new about that. Books have the advantage of allowing you to quickly flip through and compare species though, so I don’t think of electronic guides as being a replacement for books.

    I’ve only had the Crossley guide for a few days, but so far I’ve found that I like the photo collages–they are really works of art in themselves. I also think they give beginning birders a great sense of the bird, but I’m not sure they help intermediate to advanced birders much–except when there’s a special need to ID a bird from an odd angle. They also do bring together a lot of photos of species in a single place–though many of these are too small or dark to be of much use and the book seems to give more photo space to the more common species–which is the opposite of what more advanced birders need. There’s also a glaring error in the book–“Saltmarsh Sparrow” is referred to be the long obsolete name “Sharp-tailed Sparrow”.

  • Mike

    One more comment. Speaking of natural scenes – you don’t actually see a scene very often where only one species of bird is present. Instead, on a typical spring day you might have trees, fields, and bushes all around you with many species of warblers mulling about and maybe some thrushes and other standard species skulking about. One idea (I don’t think Crossley does this but I may stand corrected) would be pages of *many kinds of birds* at various distances all on one page in various places. That would be a great exercise for me, personally, trying to pick out all the species in their different plumages. Now I wouldn’t call this a field guide per se, but it would be a useful exercise (like a practice workbook) to have a book of stuff like this, for me at least.

  • Great discussion, all.

    Mike, I’d love to see something like Karlson, Crossley, and O’Brien’s wonderful shorebird guide for a l l birds, which is pretty much what you’re describing.

    Jim, you’re right, I didn’t even think of the Thayer guides. Are they any good? Do they do the things that the Crossley material could do given the right “delivery system”? My point was that the images and texts in the ID Guide could offer all sorts of different views and combinations, but that publication as a printed codex prevents that.

    Robert, if I were young and smart, I’d start figuring out how to install electronic bird-finding guides in the gps systems of cars. Wouldn’t that be something?

  • Great review, as usual, Rick.

    I think this is the first review (of the many I’ve read) that has mentioned the fuzziness of some plates. There are several that I have found very distracting. As you said, this goes beyond any intentional de-sharpening. At least, I hope so. I don’t know if this is a problem with the printing process or with the source photos. Nor do I know if this is a problem with all copies – the only one I’ve seen so far is my own.

    This would, indeed, make a great electronic guide. But, just like the print version, it would be an awful portable guide. It just wasn’t designed to be used in the field. Regardless, the screens of portable devices aren’t large enough to do the plates justice.

  • Interesting review~I like your ideas~I would love to see this as an electronic guide for the ipad and ipod..I wouldn’t use this in the field but study it in free moments during the day.

    I have to say I take offense by this statement “not just another of the “apps” that are being sold with such success to a gullible birding public.”
    I am some of that public you speak about that uses Sibley, Ibird pro, and Birdseye in electronic form.
    I cant tell you how many times it has helped me in the field ID a bird.. Having the vocalizations to confirm what I am hearing is so helpful. The ability of side by side comparisons in Sibley app is great.

    I love and embrace this new technology..Its not perfect~But it works for me and for many of us.

  • I agree with you, Mike. But I’m troubled by the “natural” backgrounds for a bigger reason. Yes, it is good to see some birds with an urban background as noted above, but because every one of the myriad birds portraying a species is shown in the exact same habitat, it becomes highly misleading rather than helpful, like the silly Audubon guides that expected you to find the bird plates by color and species accounts by habitat, because most species of birds come in more than one color and live in more than one habitat. It is indeed likely that one will find a Chipping Sparrow at many golf courses. But we see many, many more of them in wilder habitats that have conifers.

    Also, my trusty old Golden Guide and every printing of National Geographic already show birds in their natural habitats, have many (if not enough) flight shots, and a lot of information for their size. I’m sad that not one newer field guide ever picked up on the Golden Guide’s sonagrams, but am hopeful that the new trend in night-call listening will lead some enterprising field guide publisher to pretend they’re being innovative in going back to what the Golden had all along.

  • Tim in Albion

    Yes, I too thought that comment was off the mark. The apps are cheap, and they are really useful. They are in the early stages of exploring what an app can do, relative to a book, so I expect most of what I’m using now will be obsolete soon; but since I didn’t pay much for them, I’m okay with that.

    The Peterson’s app gets me to the comparative plates faster than the book does. Sibley’s offers multiple songs/calls, and side-by-side comparisons. iBird Pro gives me interesting information about habits, nesting, etc. All of them have drawbacks, too, but having all three has been very helpful several times, even in the short time I’ve been using them.

    I look forward to improvements and innovations that will make these things even more useful, possibly even revolutionary. Meanwhile, they help me bird.

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