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Another Modest Proposal: The Future of Field Guides

Diana Doyle, writing in the September 2012 Birding (“eGuide Me: Birding Without Paper Field Guides,” pp. 54-59), compares birding apps with traditional (“paper”) field guides. App(le)s? and oranges?

Not really.

For one thing, Doyle comes down on the side of those old paper field guides. Oh, she’s nuanced. She’s quick to point out certain advantages to apps. Nevertheless, she has a preference. If it’s apples and oranges, then she’s saying oranges are better than apples.

12-5-15-04a [Audubon-app]But there’s something else, something subtler, in Doyle’s fine commentary. Doyle encourages us to think critically about the questions of message and medium. What’s the best way—or what are the best ways—to get all that great paper content (the message) onto an app (the medium)?

I’ll cut to the chase: It can’t be done. Or, well, it can’t be done effectively. Or, more precisely, and I hope more optimistically, there is a better way.

Well? What is it? What is the better way?

Patience. First I’m going to commit the cardinal sin of blogging. I’m going to send you elsewhere. I’d like you to read Rick Wright’s review of The Crossley Guide. But please come back!

Alright. You’re back. And you saw these lines in Wright’s review:

“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.”

I’m a huge fan of Sibley and NGS, and I’m sure Rick Wright is too. I’m not a fan, though, of the copy-and-paste approach to repackaging print field guides as apps. Imagine going to the movie theater and seeing To Kill a Mockngbird simply cut-and-pasted verbatim from Harper Lee’s novel. Literally, cut-and-pasted: Just the novel’s words scrolling down the movie screen. Needless to say, that would be ridiculous. No, the film version has a screenplay and a soundtrack, cameras and actors, and so forth. Not only that, what’s left over of the original stuff—the words and plot—is altered, extensively so.

Of course, we all admire Harper Lee. Needless to say, she is the ultimate inspiration for director Robert Mulligan’s adaptation. But the print and film versions of To Kill a Mockingbird are profoundly diffrent.

Shouldn’t it be the same with print vs. app field guides?

Let’s do this by way of an example.

Empids, those little flycatchers, are tough. We all know that. For decades, I have in some sense understood that one of the (relatively) easiest empids is the Gray Flycatcher. Oh, sure, it’s just another drab empid. But it is instantly and diagnostically recognized by a single character, readily discerned in the field. That single character can be summed up in two little words: tail dipping.

But what does that really mean? Tail dipping. It’s a behavior. Tail dipping is impossible to portray in a static photo. The behavior can be conveyed, in an abstract way, by means of a series of illustrations. And it can probably be described in the even more abstract medium of the written word—although I have to say, I’ve never seen that done well.

I would argue that the traditional field guide medium is inadequate for describing the distinctive and diagnostic tail dipping behavior of the Gray Flycatcher.

And yet the behavior is distinctive. The Gray Flycatcher’s tail dipping is diagnostic. It’s taken me a long time—more than a decade of study in the arid foothills of the Interior West—to learn the lesson. But I get it now. It came through years of field study. Not through any field guide.

Imagine, though, if I had had an app. A good app. An effective app. Not one that just repackaged print material. Rather, one that presented material like this:

Now that would have been helpful. It’s not just that the tail dipping is shown. Other stuff, rarely if ever mentioned in field guides, is clearly depicted—for example, the Gray Flycatcher’s tendency to forage low to the ground, a behavior I typically note in migrants. Even more subtle: Gray Flycatchers, I swear, often forage right at the brush-grass transition zone.

Gray Flycatchers are rare but regular migrants where I bird in the northern Front Range metro area of Colorado. I see one or two a year. (And many more when I’m on Colorado’s West Slope or in the Great Basin.) I think I’m at the point now where I tend to get on a migrant Gray right away. No binoculars needed. Instead, it’s an impression: small bird; active; nervous; down low; in grass at the edge of a row of willows, picks an insect out of the air right above the grass (or maybe from one of the grass blades itself, I can’t tell); flies up to a perch, but it’s not high up at all, just a few feet above the ground; looks unsteady; immediately, engages in a nervous behavior that we’ll refer to as, let’s say, tail dipping.

No binoculars. No field marks in the traditional sense. Slam-dunk Gray Flycatcher.

You don’t get that in a field guide. I don’t see how you could. But that short video, above, conveys it beautifully.

Hence, my modest proposal:

Field guides are marvelous. They are inspirations. But they don’t work on apps. We need apps that really work. We need apps that present new content. We have the new medium in place. Now we need a new message.

Do we live in exciting times, or what?

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the longtime Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives with the ABA. Ted has written 200+ magazine articles and 5 books, including How to Know the Birds (National Geographic, 2019). He is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and has served on several nonprofit boards. Join Ted at The ABA Blog for his semimonthly spot, “How to Know the Birds,” celebrating common birds and the uncommonly interesting things they do.