BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at The Crossley ID Guide

With the arrival of this spring, along with it came the weather we've come to expect – another miserably cold April, with snowfall persisting into the first of May.

And just as predictable in late March came the expected array of suspected bird identification errors: reports of a Swainson's Hawk (probably a Red-tailed or adult male Rough-legged or immature Bald Eagle, all of which can show a dark throat-upper breast suggesting a Swainson's-like "bib"); a Broad-winged Hawk (accipiters and Red-shouldereds also have banded tails); a heard Common Nighthawk (which the observer, to his credit, later withdrew and allowed he probably heard a woodcock).

Early and mid-April continued with: another nighthawk report (if heard-only, most likely another woodcock – or perhaps a male goldeneye, which many birders don't know sounds quite nighthawk-like); an Eastern Wood-Pewee (if just heard, how about a starling instead; if seen, too many birders and field guide authors still seem unaware that phoebes often show pewee-like wing bars); a Painted Redstart.... (Wait, a what was reported?)

Usually, on this annual list of suspicious early-April arrivals, the wood-pewee entry is followed by a Swainson's (or another thrush's) identity mistakenly pinned on a Hermit Thrush. But not this time – perhaps our thrush ID skills are improving? Instead, for a jarring change of pace, a bird thought to be a Painted Redstart is seen, and, as expected, it turns out the presumably inexperienced observer simply made an error. Not expected, though, was the source of confusion reported a couple weeks later: it was actually an Eastern Towhee!

You might recall the previous Hindsight article mentioned that a birder mistook a Gray Catbird for a Northern Shrike last summer. So, was that error more surprising than confusing a towhee with a redstart from the southwestern U.S.? Hard to say, but please take note that neither observer is being criticized here, and absolutely no one is being ridiculed.

Certainly not by me. After all, you Hindsight readers have been taking identification advice from someone who long ago misidentified swimming Bonaparte's Gulls as Common Goldeneyes, who assumed a distant sleeping Black Oystercatcher was probably a pigeon, who glimpsed a Northern Wheatear and had the initial notion it might be a Solitary Sandpiper. Someone who saw a group of pelicans in early spring far out on the Mississippi and tried to pass them off as just ice floes. So, far be it from me to deride other birders who now make errors no worse than my historical blunders.

But, more to the point of this essay, I wonder which field guide they used to lead them astray. Would another guide have prevented these misidentifications, both that completely unexpected one and those other more predictable annual Rites – or Wrongs – of Spring?

Some previous Hindsight columns have reviewed field guides, sometimes in depth (e.g., the reviews of the Geographic and Sibley guides), and sometimes just in passing. But hardly any of these have appeared in recent years, and there has been a flurry of field guides published during this millennium. Has our current selection of field guides improved since the Year 2000, the year The Sibley Guide to Birds was published – i.e., that Ancient Book of Wisdom from the final year of the previous millennium? For that matter, are the guides now any better than they were 1,000 years ago?

The Crossley ID Guide

You can't judge a book by its cover, so they say, and in this case I'm relieved I don't have to. Otherwise, I'd have to give the contents of this book an automatically unfavorable assessment, since I find its cover unappealing and awkwardly designed. The thick black letters I and D dominate and overwhelm more than half of the white background, with a photo collage of birds enclosed by the giant D.  

The title itself is an oddity as well, since the word "birds" is not included. So, for all we know, it could be a guide to ice floes or some other non-avian entities. And is it an identification reference per se, if only the informal term "ID" appears as part of the formal title? However, this title does continue a quaint trend popularized by David Sibley and Kenn Kaufman in their respective field guides from an earlier millennium: like them, author Richard Crossley includes his name in the title.

I have to admit, though, if anyone deserves such top billing, Crossley certainly does. He's as skilled and accomplished has any of the top birders out there, and his approachable personality makes him a natural for teaching his approach to bird identification. But particularly amazing is his prolific talent for photography, since the guide includes some 10,000 images, virtually all of them of high quality, and – incredibly – virtually all of them were taken by the author! The acknowledgements page lists only 80 images contributed by a handful of other photographers.

These photos include 660 species, and note this is coverage for the eastern U.S. and Canada only. (It's easy to miss the relatively small words "Eastern Birds" crammed at the bottom of the cover.) But more like two-thirds of the continent is defined as "Eastern" here, so numerous marginal species from the western U.S./Canada are included. Those thousands of images are arranged on mostly full-page displays of each species, with relatively rare, local, and peripheral species relegated to a half page or less. If you do the math, the average is about 15 images per page.  

These photo collages might remind you of those dioramas at the Bell Museum of Natural History in Minneapolis, since each set of images is arranged on a background depicting a habitat appropriate for the bird. Images in the foreground are naturally larger and more useful, with coverage of each species as it varies by sex, season, and age. In addition, several smaller images of the bird also appear in the background, showing flight styles, typical postures, and flocking behaviors.

The amount of text is limited, usually about half of it with habitat, behavior, and similar information about the species, and half on identification. Vocalization information only appears briefly, if at all, and is far less complete than what you'll find in Sibley's guide. The small range maps seem no better or worse than those in other guides. More relevant and noticeable is this guide's extensive use of those four-letter banding codes as abbreviations, which will not appeal to many readers, and some might be disoriented by the book's non-standard arrangement of the sequence of species.

Without question, this guide is an attractive, truly unique, and amazing achievement, and I have every confidence that its overall accuracy is on a par with the Geographic and Sibley guides. Despite the hype I've read from some reviewers, though, I have doubts that it will become an essential addition to birders' libraries, or that it will improve or revolutionize our field identification skills. For one thing, it is larger and even heavier than Sibley and may prove to be more of a secondary reference and coffee-table book.

One negative is that none of the photo displays seems to include any images of similar species. The treatment of Red Phalarope, to give just one of many examples, would have been much more useful if some Red-necked Phalarope images had been included on the page for direct comparison.

Also, while 10,000 photos amounting to 15 photos per species are indeed a lot of pictures, are they enough? Are Crossley's species accounts superior to those in other guides, and will they translate into more accurate identifications?

Take Red-tailed Hawk and Herring Gull, for example, which I consider two key indicator species because they are widespread, have a variety of plumages, and often are mistaken for other birds. Crossley has 13 useful Red-tailed images (i.e., excluding small background photos), which compares favorably with only eight illustrations in Geographic, but it's far fewer than the 39 pictures in Sibley spread over two facing pages. And Crossley's 12 useful Herring Gull pictures are just one more than in Geographic and, again, far fewer than Sibley's 26 images on two pages.

I suspect that some birders will continue to make just as many errors even if The Crossley ID Guide makes it into everyone's library. Maybe no one will ever mistake a towhee for a redstart again, but it's safe to assume some of this spring's perennial misidentifications will be repeated next year.  

Other Photographic Field Guides

Besides the trend of authors naming field guides after themselves, another pattern in this genre has seemed to emerge in recent years. Even though guides illustrated with paintings are generally better, almost all the new ones are illustrated with photographs, including Crossley's, and there have been five of these in just five years. While I don't recommend any of them as sufficiently adequate and accurate (photo guides typically don't include nearly enough photos for each species), if you insist on buying one, here are the other four:  

The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America by Don and Lillian Stokes (2010)

Given their superficial public television series several years ago, and their inadequate photo guides to eastern and western birds from 1996, I was surprised to find this guide better – or at least more comprehensive – than the other three. It includes 854 species, about 100 more than the Floyd and Brinkley guides (see below), with generally one or two species per page. In all, there are more than 3,400 photographs, compared to only 2,000 and 2,100 respectively in Floyd and Brinkley. There is also an accompanying CD with vocalizations for some 150 species.

Using again my two indicator species mentioned earlier, the number of images in Stokes compares favorably with other field guides:  


• Red-tailed Hawk – Geographic 8, Sibley 39, Crossley 13, Stokes 23, Floyd 10, Brinkley 10

• Herring Gull – Geographic 11, Sibley 26, Crossley 12, Stokes 11, Floyd 5, Brinkley 3

Keep in mind, though, that quality is at least as important as quantity, and the Stokes do not share the acknowledged level of bird ID expertise of a Jon Dunn (chief author of Geographic), David Sibley, or Richard Crossley. In sum, this remains just another photographic guide within its non-recommended genre, but at least it looks better than the following three.     

Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America by Ted Floyd (2008)

Although this author lacks the fame of a Dunn or Sibley, Floyd (editor of Birding magazine) is thoroughly experienced and more than qualified to produce a field guide. This one consists of 2,000 photos of 750 species, with one or two species per page, and a DVD of vocalizations of 138 species. Although I'd certainly consult with Ted before Don & Lillian on a bird ID issue, his photo guide will not measure up to the level of a Geographic or Sibley guide.    

National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America by Edward Brinkley (2007)

Also an editor (of the journal North American Birds) and a lesser-known authority on bird ID, Brinkley is similarly qualified to author a field guide. His guide is much like Floyd's: 2,100 photos, 750 species, and generally two species per page (the inadequate coverage of gulls is especially surprising). Again, while Ned's birding knowledge is enviable, his photo guide will prove no more useful than any of the others.         

American Museum of Natural History Birds of North America: Eastern Region, edited by François Vuilleumier (2009)

Only 390 eastern birds are included, I have no idea who the editor is, and I've only heard of eight of his 22 "contributors". (Recommended? I don't think so!)

Peterson Field Guides

So, where are the bird artists of this current millennium? Why are virtually all the new field guides illustrated with photos rather than paintings? True, those smaller Eastern and Western Sibley guides appeared in 2003, but the artwork remained the same as in the original. And, while the fourth and fifth editions of the Geographic field guide appeared since 2000 with a handful of new illustrations, most of the paintings and text were unchanged from the third.

But wait, hold on. What about those venerable Peterson field guides? Didn't the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America (with both eastern and western birds) appear in 2008, and a sixth edition of the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America come out in 2010? Yes, but you weren't fooled into buying them, were you, thinking they'd be something entirely new?

True, the 2008 guide includes 40 new paintings plus some digital updates and new range maps, but mostly it's just Peterson's paintings and text from his 1990 Western guide combined with those from the 1980 Eastern guide. Similarly, the 2010 Eastern guide includes some updates in the text and plates, but most of it is outdated material which does not measure up to the comprehensive accuracy of the Geographic and Sibley guides.

Minnesota Field Guides

I often meet birders looking for field guides targeted to the species of a single state. Such guides do exist, but, unless you're a beginner, none of them are recommended. All are limited in the number of species covered, with relatively superficial and basic ID material, and such oversimplification naturally leads to misidentifications.

Birds of Minnesota and Wisconsin by Robert Janssen and Daryl Tessen (2003)

At least this regional field guide in the Lone Pine Publishing series relies on paintings rather than photos. and the overall quality of the attractive illustrations appears more than adequate. Still, there are generally only one or two paintings for each of the 322 species included, not nearly enough to illustrate the variety of plumages found on many species. Despite its title and the reputations of its authors in their respective states, I don't think I've ever seen anyone using this guide in the field. You'll do better with a Geographic or Sibley.     

Birds of Minnesota Field Guide by Stan Tekiela (2nd edition, 2004)

This widely distributed booklet (often found by convenience store cash registers) may have come out with a new edition, but it's nothing new. Nor is it a field guide. It's essentially a bird book for non-birders, including just 111 species (with uncertain logic behind their selection), merely one photo per bird, superficial material in the text (much of it oddly irrelevant), and a flawed and inconsistent arrangement of birds by color. It's hard to see how even beginning birders could use it to any advantage, and if only this booklet would quit calling itself a field guide, I'd be less critical of it.

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There seems to be a pattern here: Crossley, Kaufman, Peterson, Sibley, and Stokes – field guides known by the authors' names in their titles. So I wonder if that American Museum of Natural History book would sell better as The François Vuilleumier ID Guide. You know, instead of saying "Hey, anybody got a Geo?" or "Yo, lemme see your Sibley", we all could be asking: "Alors, mon ami, may I see your François Vuilleumier?" Catchy, n'est-ce pas?)

Well, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. How does this sound for my next column: "Birding by Eckert: A Second Look at Pelicans and Ice Floes"?