American Birding Podcast



Right Brain, Left Brain, Crossed Eyes

A review by Soheil Zendeh

The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors, by Richard Crossley, Jerry Liguori, and Brian Sullivan

Princeton University Press, 2013

286 pages, $29.95—flexi-cover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 13876

Roger Tory Peterson taught us to look for field marks. He pasted those little arrows into his illustrations, and presto: The whole world of the field guide was transformed.

Thanks in part to Peterson’s slender arrows, most of us assume that there will always be diagnostic marks that, if we know what they are, will help us instantly identify a new birds or mammal or amphibian or butterfly. But when it comes to animals we are already familiar with, we can forgo looking for such marks. Just as I recognize my son from blocks away not by any particular field mark but by the whole aspect (“gestalt”) he
presents, we know familiar birds immediately without realizing which field marks we’ve used—or, indeed, without using any at all.

K9966Those different ways of recognizing could be seen as differences between left-brain (verbal, digital) and right-brain (non-verbal, analog) cognition. Most of us, I’d venture to say, try to learn new ideas, concepts, and things using our left brain; but then, after a while, the
automatic pattern-recognition and analog part, the right brain, takes over, and we become unaware of how we recognize the familiar.

Richard Crossley comes to us and asks, “Can you describe a Blue Jay?” Can you? To be able to say whether a Blue Jay has white wing bars, or black on the face, is to have a verbal description of the bird. Crossley says, “Write down the description so you’ll know the bird, not the identification.” What he means, I think, is, “Learn the whole bird, not just its field  marks. But learn the whole bird in verbal detail.” And to help us do it, he invented a new type of field guide. The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds, published in 2011, is now  followed by Raptors.

Crossley’s system dispenses with individual illustrations and field mark arrows. Instead, for each species he gives us a large—sometimes enormous—canvas with multiple photographic images of a bird at different distances, in different lighting conditions, in multiple poses, sometimes associating with others of its kind, sometimes pursuing prey or being pursued
by a predator. In Raptors, each species has at least one two-page spread, some much more: Our eagles, for example, are given five full openings.

There is visual grandeur in these images. Crossley is the photographer and the Photoshop wizard, and his compositions are intended to give the impression of seeing a bird in its natural setting. The idea is that if you see images of the bird over and over again in its usual surroundings, you’ll learn its gestalt and learn to recognize the species in the flesh.

BINbuttonI get this. That’s how I learn. It’s right-brain, non-verbal, analog. I think a lot of us birders learn identification this way. But I’m not sure that learning to call a species by gestalt helps if you then want to describe the bird in a left-brain, verbal, digital way. Remember those ornithological tomes that provide detailed descriptions of every feather tract of every age and both sexes of each species? I blank out on those. What I want is to have Roger Tory Peterson come along with his arrows and point me to the part of the description that is diagnostic.

It seems to me that the really top birders do both: They work instantly with gestalt, but they also have the ability to verbalize what they are seeing. Even after the bird has left their view, its image can be recalled by the left side of the brain and converted into a verbal description. It’s taken me a long time to realize this about myself, but I can’t do that. I know what a Black-bellied Plover or a Golden Eagle or a Warbling Vireo is when I see one, but I can’t tell you in any detail how I know it.

By placing each bird in context, the images in Raptors provide far more information than those staged paintings in older-style books. Yet as my mind and my eyes wander the beautiful images, I feel lost without an all-powerful guide telling me what field mark to look for. I miss those silly little arrows.

Each spread of images here is accompanied by a short commentary. More extensive but still concise texts fill the second half of the book. Written by Jerry Liguori and Brian Sullivan, two heavyweights in the field of hawk identification, these descriptions are organized into a standard series of topics: overview, flight style, size and shape, plumage, geographic variation, molt, similar species, status and distribution, migration, and vocalization. In short, the text is encyclopedic. I doubt you’ll have a raptor question that is not at least touched on. The section covering geographic variation in the Red-tailed Hawk takes up more than two full pages—as it should! Topics such as eagle plumages, Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawk identification, and geographic variation in the Red-shouldered Hawk are treated at length. In this section, the left brain reigns supreme.

Crossley may be a self-styled revolutionary when it comes to field guide design, but this book’s approach to classification is strictly old-school. All right, so it hardly matters when you’re out in the field: this is an identification guide, not a taxonomic work. Of course it includes the New World vultures and California Condor (all in the family Cathartidae), which were at one point split from the rest of the diurnal raptors and placed with the storks. That has now been reversed, and the AOU Check-list once again places them in the same order as the eagles, kites, hawks and harriers—but not with the falcons, which now occupy their own, separate order and are thought to be more closely related to the parrots. There is no mention in Raptors of the research that has thus split up the traditional group. And truth be told, maybe that’s a good thing. Who knows what the taxonomists will come up with tomorrow?

The book also ignores a significant thrust by Bill Clark, author of Hawks of North America in the Peterson series, to split the Harlan’s and Krider’s Hawks from the Red-tailed Hawk and to classify them as a distinct species, Buteo harlani, varying from very dark birds (traditionally called “Harlan’s”) to the lightest (“Krider’s”). Crossley et al. acknowledge none of this, and go with the traditional description of the Red-tailed Hawk as so varied that it can encompass such tremendously different types as Harlan’s and Krider’s. Crossley simply asserts that Krider’s “has yet to be documented west of the Rocky Mountains,” and encourages birders to think of a western red-tail with a whitish tail as a light-morph Harlan’s. (No field guide so far has included Clarke’s proposed split.)

Crossley has an additional trick up his sleeve, and it’s a lengthy one. Out of 160 pages of photographs, fully 25 are mystery images: a page of Texas falcons, for example, or a two-page spread of perched buteos. The book challenges you to identify them all, and to age and sex them where possible. The answers, taking up 14 pages at the end of the book’s text section, briefly discuss each identification. This is almost too much fun. You might forget that you should be out there looking for real live birds, and instead spend your hours on the couch surfing the images.

In summary, Crossley’s new book may leave you cross-eyed—but also visually stimulated. The various techniques and tricks he uses are meant to get your right brain and your left brain talking to each other. That may succeed with some people. I still like my field guides, like my gin, straight.  But Crossley mixes it up, and who can resist?

Raised in Tehran and Tangier, Soheil Zendeh arrived in Cambridge, MA, as a college freshman in 1961. He started birding in 1973, and is co-founder of the Friends of Belle Isle Marsh and the “Take a Second Look” (TASL) program. Zendeh has been taking part in the Great Basin winter raptor census and banding project since 2008. 

Recommended citation:

Zendeh, S. 2013. Right Brain, Left Brain, Crossed Eyes [a review of The Crossley Guide: Raptors, by Richard Crossley, Jerry Liguori, and Brian Sullivan]. Birding 45(4):66.