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Review: The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors

May 21, 2013

Crossley ID GuideRichard Crossley’s initial foray into the crowded North American field guide market was greeted with something along the lines of wild enthusiasm when it wasn’t being being derided as the finest inducement of epileptic seizures as your likely to find in a nature book. I’ve gone back and forth on it as a tool for identifying birds, but I stand by what I said before. That Crossley, if nothing else, really deserves credit for blowing the doors open on what we should expect for a field guide, even if I can’t spend a lot of time looking at his forest birds because the depth of field thing just kills me.

But remove the need for the eye to observe birds in three dimensions by making the backdrop a distant shoreline or a wide prairie or, best, the broad blue sky, and you’ve got something here. The bottom line is that I am not convinced that Crossley’s busy collage style really works for a full field guide.

Hawkwatchers have long had a library at hand with considerable pedigree. Dunne et al’s Hawks in Flight being the father of the genre and still holding up well in a second edition thanks to a mix of great new photos and the classic illustrations by David Sibley. Jerry Liguori has charged into the field with a pair of volumes indispensable in their narrow niche, and it’s nice to see Liguori’s expertise put to good use here as it’s his books that seem to be the inspiration, intentional or not, for Crossley’s interpretation. What, then, is this ID guide but a mashup up of Hawks at Every Angle and Hawks at a Distance?

The third in that formidable trio is eBird guru and hawkwatcher extraordinaire Brian Sullivan.  The three of them have pooled strengths to make this book an instant leader in the field. But as with the last Crossley guide, this one is intended to be more than just a means by which you puzzle out those hawkwatch specks, and I’d even argue that’s not what it’s best at. Guides like this are intended to be workbooks. Of course, every field guide now on the market has this as its intention, going so far as to urge birders to set it aside when the bird is in view, or to keep it handy for when you’re not birding, but none are so explicit as Crossley. The guide includes a series of quizzes throughout intended to test you on what you’re learning. And this is really where Crossley’s style shines.

Crossley raptor quiz

This plate is entitled “Topsides” and it shows a variety of unidentified raptors from the top encouraging the reader to try to identify them based on criteria from the individual species accounts.  Now granted, this type of thing really only works once as a quiz, but the reference is the sort that is most valuable for those trying to identify raptors and it forces you to take into account the more subtle aspects of proportion, shape, and style that take decades to grasp before. Hawkwatching it always going to be touch, but birders these days have the sort of head start that was unimaginable 40 years ago when the practice began to catch on. It’s a wonderful world that we live in that this is so.

I’m still not 100% on board with the Crossley style, but that’s ok – even Roger Tory Peterson himself didn’t nail every one of his graphics either.  But this specific book, full of birds typically seen in expansive settings or on the wing works pretty well.

Check that. It works really well.

If they haven’t already, hawk enthusiasts are going to enjoy this one.

Thanks to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy

  1. May 21, 2013 9:29 am

    These guys are difficult to identify. If only they would sit still long enough!

  2. D. Els permalink
    May 21, 2013 6:44 pm

    I think this review nails it. I like looking through the book, but I have a very hard time digesting the color plates and using it to learn. The text is pretty straightforward and informative though, very well-written.

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