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The Wonder that is Crossley

March 12, 2011

Bibliophilic Birders! Who would have thought that I’d ever have strong opinions about a field guide? Who would have imagined that a mere year after I started birding (yes, this blog is now a year old, we’ll have to celebrate), I’d be at the stage where I count the days before the publication of a new field guide like it’s a novel I’ve been awaiting for months?

Yes, you guessed it! I finally got my hands on The Crossley ID Guide (Eastern Birds) and so far, apart from my stunning red boots, it’s been the highlight of this grizzly winter we’ve been having. I’m not put off by cold (even extreme cold doesn’t phase me); it’s the gray drabness that I cannot abide. Richard Crossley’s wondrous field guide sure got me out of my winter stupor! Should you want to read a fabulous, ornithologically-sound review of the book, which brings up a slew of criticisms I hadn’t even considered, check out the inimitable Rick Wright’s review on the ABA blog. But all possible criticisms aside, Crossley is a genius.

The field guide contains more than 10,000 of Crossley’s photographs (!) of Eastern birds of every type imaginable and in their natural environment. The effect is amazing, especially for a novice birder such as yours truly, since I often have a hard time imagining where a particular bird might hang out or what it would actually look like in flight rather than in the form of a hand drawing. It really is a revolutionary field guide (and not just revolutionary because the author himself says so!). But have no fear, this doesn’t mean that I’m giving up Sibley, just that the two work really well in tandem, I think. My only problem with Crossley is that the book is far too heavy and large to actually carry as a field guide. So, I’ll stick to Sibley in the field and Crossley once I return to the comfort of my home. I do wish it were a more portable volume, but perhaps that wasn’t Crossley’s design.

I love birding, but I also find it frustrating, because it’s now been a year, and I still can’t identify more than about 8 birds. To me, most of them look grayish-brown, especially if they’re of the hawk variety. Unless they happen to be warblers, in which case they fly by so quickly I can’t keep up with them and the overall effect is dizzying. Of course there are the show-stopping cardinals, tanagers and goldfinches, to whom I’m eternally grateful for their fearless display of color. I’m glad that Crossley’s magnum opus acknowledges my color-issues. No wonder birding is so challenging! There really IS a disproportionate number of grayish-brown birds! It wasn’t my imagination!

More than anything, the ID guide has gotten me excited about Spring which may or may not grace us with its presence one of these days.

And, my latest discovery (which I’ll only see if I travel to southern Florida) is the Smooth Billed Ani (Crotophaga ani). The bird looks fabulously prehistoric, and the streaked hair (ok, plumage) is something I’ll one day have the courage to emulate:

(Photo from here.) Crossley aptly refers to Smooth-billed Ani’s “weird honker of a bill.” I couldn’t have said it better myself and I have a feeling that Crossley and I are going to get along famously.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 14, 2011 5:10 am

    This book looks just incredible! I really want it….friends, family? Are you listening? I wish he had one for Europe!

  2. March 21, 2011 5:36 pm

    So here’s my secret to learning how to identify birds: get someone to teach you. Luckily for me, my son is an expert birder, and has been birding since he was 6 (he’s now 25), and after my begging him repeatedly and whining a lot, he’s taught me enough that I can now grab my birding guide and usually figure out what I’m looking at! Of course, I couldn’t let all that wailing and gnashing of teeth go to waste, so I’ve modeled the protagonist of my Bob White Birder Murder Mystery series after my son, and I’ve found a whole new world of crazy birders to enjoy and write about. Talk about killing two birds with one stone…sorry, feathered friends, I know you hate that expression…

    • March 25, 2011 9:37 am

      Hello Birdermurdermama! Thanks for stopping by my blog again. I’m going to check out one of your birder murder mysteries and recommend them to my group! I do go out birding with a group, which makes all the difference, but I probably don’t spend enough time studying my field guide and taking notes afterwords, because some days, everything just looks like a plain old sparrow. Other days, however, are more rewarding. It varies!

  3. April 25, 2011 10:33 pm


    (Hi! It’s Meera!)

    I feel you. Birding is really really hard. One of the things that makes it feel harder, I think, is that as a beginning birder you often spend a lot of time with much more experienced birders—because they are such good teachers. But good teachers can also really highlight the gap between your own knowledge and theirs. I think it just takes time, practice, and dedication. I also found the short series of birding tip videos that the Cornell Lab made incredibly helpful. You’ve probably already seen them, but if not I can dig up the link.

    Finally, I had not heard of Crossley! What a gorgeous guide. Perhaps my Sibley loyalty should be flexed a little. Thanks for the introduction!

    • April 26, 2011 1:24 pm

      Thanks so much for reading, Meera! The guide is indeed gorgeous, but it isn’t a substitute for Sibley, I’m afraid, mainly given its unwieldy size! I find it to be the perfect companion *after* coming home from “the field”…

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