Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Crossley ID Guide Review

The Crossly ID Guide: Eastern Birds
by Richard Crossley.
Published by Princeton University Press (a review copy was provided to me by Princeton University Press). Cloth Flexibound. 2011. $35.00 ISBN: 9780691147789 544 pp. 7-1/2 x 10 10,000 color images.

This guide has been out for a while and has garnered a fair amount of press and hype. I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical about it being able to live up to the promise of being a "revolutionary" field guide before I even saw it despite the author being a co-author on another guide that I really grew to like after initially having some hesitation (The Shorebirds Guide). I am inclined to be more critical of anything that is over-hyped and I have hesitated to do this review because I wanted to see if my initial bias would temper over time like it did with the Shorebirds guide.
I was not overwhelmed by my initial impression of the book although there were aspect of the book that I liked. I was surprised by the size of the book - certainly not a a guide I would take on a walk with me which limits it's field utility from the start.
After quickly scanning through the pages I started reading the Introduction, an often overlooked but important part of a field guide. I found it peculiar that Crossley began with a section titled "I Don't Like Text" - in which he proceded to state that he "soon get(s) bored with the introductory section of any book" - and then followed that with more introductory text than either my field guide standard, the Birds of Europe by Sevensson, Mullarney and Zetterstrom, or The Sibley Guide to Birds. The good news is that, despite his dislike of text, Crossley delivers a good introduction to his book and birding in general.
The plates are intended to be the "heart and soul" of the book and they are an impressive accumulation of photos taken by mostly one person. The Introduction proceeds to explain the intent of the plates including the explanation that the plates were not fully captioned to help the reader learn from the captioned images. The only problem with this idea is that there is no feedback to ensure that the readers guess on the age and/or sex of the bird is either verified or rejected. This is one of the strengths of the Shorebird guide - the answers to the quiz photos are located at the back of the book. There are also a number of plates where it is obvious that all the photos were taken on the same occasion and the diversity in lighting and and individuals is limited. This could have been rectified by bringing in photos from other photographers, but it seemed more important for Crossley to claim that he took most of the photos than provide better photos for his guide.
I also still cannot see how I would use this book to better identify a bird I have observed in the field. I rely on my field guide to help me make an educated guess on the identity of a bird I am observing, usually by helping me differentiate between similar species. First, as I noted above, I wouldn't have this book in the field and once I would be able to consult this guide, I still have a hard time figuring out how to use this book to aid in bird identification. Perhaps I am just unable to connect with Crossley's plea to "think of and use this book differently than any other guide" I own. And perhaps that is the issue. He states a few times that the book is intended to be interactive, but then really misses being interactive. Maybe this shouldn't have been a guide book in the traditional sense. Maybe Crossley should have created a guide that was revolutionary and different. What if it could be really interactive? A few years ago that might have been a moot question, but today it isn't.
I agree with Rick Wright that this should have been the first truly electronic guide and his assessment that all that is good with the book would get better and most of the shortcomings would disappear (see his review linked above for a more thorough discussion of this concept). Maybe then this guide would truly be interactive and could have really lived up to its hype of being revolutionary and turning birding upside down. I have a feeling I would have really liked (and used) this guide like that. As it is, I may refer to it occasionally if I am looking for another reference when I am working on an identification, but it will not be the first book I turn to, nor the second either.

1 comment:

Guy said...

Hi John

I like the book when I first got it and it has received a lot of good press. I am still happy with it but I think your comments are justified. It is,in theory geared I think, to identifying subtle differences between birds of different ages or very closely related species. However it is hard to make these identifications unless you have the book with you while studying the bird. Since it's size precludes that in most cases, that is a problem. I also agree that the photos could benefit from more variety in lighting etc. It is good for sparrows in the back yard.