Friday, November 29, 2013

Review: The Crossley ID Guide/Britain & Ireland


Richard Crossley and Dominic Couzens have published a new guide to the birds of Britain and Ireland. This book adheres to the Crossley system of bird identification in which plates are crammed with dozens of bird photographs. The birds in these photos come in different sizes (ranging from adequate to frustratingly tiny) and postures, all against busy habitat scenes. Ascertaining the relative sizes of the species is difficult. Sample plates can be viewed at the Amazon site links in this post.
Crossley’s hypothesis is that we learn to identify birds by knowing size, shape, behavior, probability, and color patterns. You don’t get this synthesis in a normal field guide. Crossely writes, “repetition and familiarity are the best tools for learning any subject.” He believes that traditional portraits with arrows indicating salient field marks are not the most effective educational tool. Nevertheless, the guide begins with 12 pages with small photographs of single birds, often with up to three dozen species per page. Although small range maps accompany each plate, the book lacks a detailed map of Great Britain. The text accompanying the plates is short and in very small font.

So how did you learn to identify birds? While I was in the seventh grade, my two brothers and I competitively quizzed each other with a stack of 5 x7 cards with Agassiz bird portraits on them. I think these cards were from the Audubon Society. That year my teacher, John Trott, initiated a year-long bird identification unit in conjunction with his banding birds. Much of my birding involved peer learning. If I were learning birds today, undoubtedly I would be using the Thayer Birding Softwarequizzes and attending birding field trips.

Although I own Crossley’s earlier book on eastern birds (see link below), when I need a field guide, I first turn to my Sibleyguide. But Crossley claims his book is not aimed at me, but, rather beginning and intermediate birders. His goal is to teach neophytes. I would love to know if he has evidence that his system is better than traditional field guides. 

1 comment:

  1. (This assumes that the UK Crossley is like the Eastern US Crossley)
    I love the Crossley Guide for what it is: a book with great pics for learning what birds look like before going out. I love sharing it with my kids. When telling them what I saw that day that was novel, or what I'm hoping to see that day. It's more like a coffeetable book that's comprehensive in scope than a field guide.

    But for IDing something I've seen that I'm stumped on, or wanting to refresh in my mind things like the differences between female purple and house finches, I go to Sibley.

    The small photos at the beginning of the book are helpful for gaining a sense of scale: all the birds from a section at the same scale. (Sibley does a similar thing at the beginning of each photo) I'd never realized that Frigatebirds were that huge!

    Crossley's text descriptions are generally more useful and interesting than what Sibley has in his. I'm often a bit puzzled by the particular information that Sibley has chosen to put between those range maps.

    In my 30s, I'm still learning how to ID birds. I started with a Golden Guide, moved on to Peterson as a child, NatGeo as a teenager, and then life took me out of birding opportunities for a decade or so. I started to get into it again two or three years ago when the opportunities arose, and this year is by far the most serious I've been. (Can't believe I went to Alaska in the interim and didn't think to write down what I saw or even bring a field guide!)

    Generally, I'm a book user, who supplements with mp3s on my older-generation iPod, not an app user. (I also bought the Stokes guide this past year and I'm not quite sure what it's useful for. Maybe text descriptions of subspecies and their ranges?) I "quiz" myself with sites like yours and the MOU's, trying to ID the pictures before I read the text.

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