Monday, March 7, 2011

The Crossley ID Guide...a workbook for all birders!

I regularly listen to a very eclectic assortment of music online at  A very amusing and perhaps a serendipitous omen occurred when I opened Richard Crossley's new bird guide.  The song playing on Pandora at the very moment I cracked open the book was Frank Sinatra singing "My Way".

Way back 1967, ten years before I was born, Paul Anka sought to delve into Sinatra's mind as he penned the words to "My Way".  Similarly, I have been trying to get into Richard Crossley's head to understand his perspective and approach to this "revolutionary" bird guide.  Let's take a look at the words of the song, with a few minor word changes as if Richard Crossley himself were here singing to the birding world:

And now, my guide is here,
And so I face the open curtain.
My friends, I'll say it clear;
I'll state my case of which I'm certain.
I've photo'd every bird - 
I've traveled each and every highway.
And more, much more than this,
I did it my way.
Regrets? I've had a few,
But then again, too few to mention.
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption.
I planned each plate of course -
Each careful pose, behavior display,
And more, much more than this,
I did it my way.
Yes, there were times, I'm sure you knew,
When I bit off more than I could chew,
But through it all, when there was doubt,
I ate it up and spit it out.
I faced it all and I stood tall
And did it my way.
I've loved, I've laughed and cried,
I've had my fill - my share of musing.
But now, as tears subside,
I find it all so amusing.
To think I did all that,
And may I say, not in a shy way -
Oh no. Oh no, not me.
I did it my way.
For what is a man? What has he got?
If not the birds - Then he has naught.
To make a guide he truly feels
And caring not to who it appeals.
The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way.
Yes, it was my way.

Richard Crossley certainly created this bird guide his way...and I like it!

(click to enlarge)
The Crossley ID Guide has already been subject to thorough examination by dozens of reviewers and bird bloggers like me.  Being a little late to the review game of this particular guide I wanted to present a unique perspective rather than a traditional review.  I've watched the author's video clips online and now have read the introductory text with highlighter in hand.  As I review the reviewers - with all due respect to my online birding friends whose reviews have generally been positive and in favor of this new bird guide - almost none of of them seemed to fully grasp Richard's Crossley's intent and purpose of how to use his guide.  I read a lot of  "the plates are too busy", "the book is too big to take in the field", "I wouldn't use this as my first choice to identify a bird I saw in the field", and "the lighting on each individual bird is not consistent on the page".  None of them seemed to expound on what and how Crossley intended the ID Guide to be used.  May I present my interpretation of Crossley's intent and I how I recommend we use this book?

"...the principal reason for its design is to be interactive with the reader - much like a workbook at school"
          - Richard Crossley
In one early promotional video clip, Crossly talked about how most field guides are like a cheat sheet to a test; all the answers are given you.  His guide is rather a study workbook that prepares a birder for the test in the field.  This workbook is a useful tool to birders of all levels, and will increase your skills and ability to look at birds closely.

The following is how I believe The Crossley ID Guide is intended to be used:

For Beginning Birders:

From your birding mentor or from eBird, obtain a list of the 30 or so most common birds in your area for the season you are currently in.  Then heft your huge new copy of The Crossley ID Guide onto your desk to look up a few of the birds less known to you.  You can find the helpful index of common names starting on page 526.  Go to the page that bird is found on and study the photos. Don't read the text yet!

(click to enlarge)
On a note pad, write down what you observe about the size and shape of the bird.  What kind of habitat is shown in the photo? What clues about behavior do you see in the photos?  Finally, make notes about color pattern focusing on dark versus light patterns rather that the colors themselves.  Pay attention to how the bird appears perched and in flight.  Study the differences between males, females, and juveniles of each species. You might even consider trying to sketch what you see in the book because this will train your mind to look harder and more thoroughly.  Okay, now you can read the succinct text.  How do your notes compare to Crossley's?

Leaving the book at home, have your birding mentor take you to where you can see these specific birds.  No spoon-feeding allowed!  Your mentor is not allowed to identify any birds, but can help you find them.  Make sure you take your note pad and pencil.
"I believe that all experts have taken detailed field notes, which is simply the best foundation for becoming a good or great field birder"
          - Richard Crossley

On a fresh page of your notebook go through the same process you did when you were using the The Crossley ID workbook at home - taking notes and thinking in this order: Size, Shape, Habitat, Behavior, and Color Pattern.  Add notes about any sounds the bird makes.  If you made "a prolonged effort" at home using the workbook, by the time you go into the field, identification of the bird was probably pretty easy.

For Intermediate and Experienced Birders:

When you are going to a location where you expect to see birds you don't know well or new life birds, before you go, study those birds in The Crossley ID Guide exactly as explained above for beginning birders.  When you are in the field, take notes.  When you are back in your car, hotel, or back at home, then break out your favorite field guide or bird reference book and compare your notes to theirs.  You will be amazed at how much your ability to look at a bird and therefore positively identify that bird has improved!

For Expert Birders that already know everything:

Buy this guide book to add to your expansive library of books containing everything you already know and let it collect dust.....OR...Give The Crossley ID Guide as a gift to a beginning birder and teach them how to look at birds using the Crossley method I've described above.

Concluding thoughts:

"...look at a bird for what it is rather than what someone else tells you it is supposed to be."
          - Richard Crossley
I know that this method of learning actually works well.  Being an avid follower of birding blogs, over the last couple of years I have been exposed to hundreds of photos depicting birds I was unfamiliar with.  Last fall, when I traveled the east coast for a few months, I was surprised at how quickly I was able to identify birds I have never seen in real life before and without the aid of a field guide.  I confirmed the i.d. in the field guide in my car later, but didn't use the guide to help me look at the bird.

In an upcoming post, I will talk more about the features of The Crossley ID Guide.  I hope this is not, nor do I expect it will be, Crossley's final curtain.  Richard, keep doing it your way!

Special thanks to Princeton University Press for providing me a review copy.  The Crossley ID Guide can be purchased online for as little as $20.58.


  1. Robert, I love your interpretation of the song!! and on how to use the Crossley guide! I think it would also make a great picture book for preschool kids, get them into the bird appreciation mode at an early age. I have been using it extensively at home and always marvel at the accurate rendition of the birds in the field.

  2. Hee hee.. great song for Crossley. I have yet to get the book...dont know if our Homey could handle one more book.
    Looking forward to your full review..the best most comprehensive review yet was done by Chris West on the NA birding blog.. have you seen it?

  3. ...haha! I LOVE your new words to the song--very creative! Great review too. I like your take. That's how I feel too.

  4. Wow, you have thoroughly reviewed this with much thought and creativity! Well written and well done. I have not seen the guide for myself yet but it sure looks like a fun book to own. As always, I use more than one guide anyways and I rarely carry them into the field anymore. I keep them at home or in my car and take pictures and notes and try to figure it out later. I am hoping to get my hands on this book soon!

    Love what you did with the song!

  5. I am enjoying all the reviews of the Crossley ID guide.I love this innovative book and the use of natural habitats and behavior. Like a comment by Mardi Dickinson, I have never quite been able to get past the bland white backgrounds and the 2 dimensional drawings in nost bird guides. I am a bird bander and do not get t see birds in the field as often as I would like to,Crossley gives me some idea of what I am missing and the wide variety of behaviors , flight patterns and postures is very helpful. I find it helpful with my banding practice to be able to see multiple illustrations of different plumages.

    This book is more a reference than a field guide. And i find it to be a very useful reference indeed