Special features

An interview with Richard Crossley, author of the Crossley ID guides

Crossley describes how to use his eastern bird guide, where the idea for it came from, and why making birding more popular is important
By Chuck Hagner | Published: 3/2/2011

Crossley-ID-Guide-300So many field guides. So many revolutions.

The first, of course, was led by painter Roger Tory Peterson (1934), who demonstrated that a shotgun was no longer required to identify birds. The second came from artist David Sibley (2000), who not only showed flying birds and plumages of nonbreeding adults and juveniles as well as breeding birds but also made it easy to compare different species. The third, arising from a line of field guides illustrated with photos, not handmade artwork, came from Kenn Kaufman (2000). He used a computer to create hybrid images — part photo, part human handiwork — that highlighted selected characteristics of birds that are helpful to identification.

And now there’s Richard Crossley. Following in Kaufman’s path (and benefiting from an exponential growth in computing power), he has put his RAM and hard drive to work not only manipulating digital photos but also assembling his altered images into fantastic bird-rich tableaus. The resulting plates are often striking, as you can see below.

The 500-page volume, like Pete Dunne’s illustration-less 700-page field-guide companion (2006), is not intended to be carried into the field. Wanting to overcome the limitations of the traditional field guide, Crossley, like Dunne, views his book as a tool to be used indoors to prepare yourself for looking at birds outdoors. But unlike Dunne, Crossley expects you to do the preparing, as you can read in the interview below.

Please describe the reaction to your book so far.

Incredibly positive, both here and in Europe. Everyone is talking about it, which is what we wanted. I was apprehensive because this book is so different from what has come before it, both in appearance and intended use. It asks you to look at books and birds in a new light. The concerns in a couple of reviews are natural and predicted. We tend to be scared of what we don’t know! These will probably be overcome when people “get their eye in” to this type of book and how to use it.

Please describe the intended reader of The Crossley ID Guide.

Everybody! We all should look at birds the same way, using the same principles: size, shape, behavior, probability, patterns of color, and sound. It’s the same way that we look at people. I hope this book will become a “learning guide;” its intention is to redefine the way that all birders use books to look at and identify birds. The difference between the beginner and the expert is that the expert can extract and use the information a little more quickly than the beginner.

In North America, most people have said the book is very suitable for beginners and intermediate birders. I just did an interview with someone in Britain who said that most Europeans felt it was for advanced birders. I think it is great that we all see things differently.

There is a mind-blowing amount of information in the plates — something for everyone. How much the viewer will be able to use is in his or her hands. The book tries to teach you how to interpret all of this information — just as you need to do to ID (identify) birds in the field. If not, you can still look at birds in a pleasing scene and take as much or as little as you want from it.

hawks plateWhere did the idea for the book come from?

Since I was a kid, I never understood the logic of most bird books because they are so different from what we see in life. I have always been a big fan of Lars Jonsson’s artwork and the Collins Birds of Europe (by Lars Svensson, Dan Zetterström, and Killian Mullarney, Princeton, 2010) because of its vignettes. These books are more lifelike than others because they show more than the typical guide. I love the outdoors, and these two books depict it better than others. I am far from alone in these thoughts; they are probably both regarded to be the best in the world in their arenas.

I also spent a lot of time thinking about which things in society had a large impact, particularly the dynamics of TV and teaching. I began thinking that, although changes in the artistic design of The Shorebird Guide (by Michael O’Brien, Richard Crossley, and Kevin Karlson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006) were good, there was still huge room for improvement. How could I take four pages of photos and create one image?

I spent a while trying to work it out. The learning curve was huge on many levels, until I finally felt I was on the right track. There is still plenty of room for improvement, but the learning curve is flattening out.

You write in the preface (page 5): “My hope is that this book will help to change… the way we look at and use books.” How so?

What is the purpose of a birding or any other nature guide? My book is an identification guide. It is designed to help people to get better at identifying birds in the field. To do that, it needs to be lifelike and incorporate the tools we use to do this. These tools I have simplified into six groups: size, shape, behavior, probability, color patterns, and sound.

The book is designed to make you think. It gives you the answers — the age and sex of all the plumages on the large images, just like other books. However, this book asks you to work out the age and sex of birds in the background. It encourages you to look closer! Not only that, but it provides a more complete picture of habitat and behavior. After all, isn’t this the way we are taught at school?

Also, if we look at society today, everyone loves to work out the answer, relate to something, or make a comment — hence the popularity of reality TV, texting, blogging, etc. This book has many of the same characteristics. It is interactive.

Books have typically had extensive captions; I question the logic of this. Let’s put it like this: If you had kids, and they came home from school and said, “I had a great day at school. I sat at the back of the class, and the teacher gave me all the answers,” do you think the kid had a productive day at school, and would you keep them there or switch schools? I don’t think I need to answer that. We force-feed answers without ever giving you the chance to practice. With practice comes confidence. You can think of the book as a workbook. If you can’t work out the answers here, you won’t have much chance in the real world. This book is sort of a half-way house!

Which species was the most challenging to photograph?

The ones I didn’t get. American Woodcock in flight (page 185) probably had over 100 hours dedicated to it before I finally got it. Black Rail (page 214) was also a little tricky.

BicknellsThrush

The bird in the upper-right corner of the Bicknell’s Thrush plate (page 364) is wearing bands. Where and when did you photograph the thrush? Did you set out to find a banded bird, or was this a (very) happy accident?

The Bicknell’s photo was taken on June 20, 2008, near where it was banded in Vermont. I can’t remember the name of the road, but it’s a well-known site with a radio station/antenna at the top. Yes, I was there to photo them, but the bands were not important. I thought the brightness of the bands were interesting, and it is of course “real-life.”

[Bicknell's Thrush is the Neotropical migrant of highest conservation priority in the northeast U.S. According to the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, Crossley photographed the bird, a male, on Mount Mansfield. The thrush had been banded only a few weeks earlier. VCE researchers recaptured the thrush in 2009 but didn't find him in 2010. Read about the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. —CH]

Read an article about finding Bicknell’s Thrush in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

We know that you used the computer to combine multiple photos into one image. Did you also use the computer to alter the individual photos before you combined them? If so, how?

Technology today is crazy. What we can do with a photo is almost remarkable for someone who is highly skilled. Today we have total control over the color of every pixel — if we have the time and inclination. Sometimes, colors of individual birds were changed if I felt they portrayed what I wanted to relay on the plate, just as any artist would.

In some, such as White Ibis (page 203), I put some birds in the shade and some very distant, so that you could learn how white can look dark. There are lots of little things like this scattered through the book that people will question because they are not used to this in books. This is lifelike. I also believe that if you are questioning, then you are thinking. If you are thinking, then you will improve.

Which is more useful: reading the book before you go birding or reading the book after you go birding?

Both, of course, plus all the time in between! Learning is learning, and fun is fun! What is most important is knowing how to look at birds in the field in between reading The Crossley ID Guide. The other unique aspect of this book is the accompanying interactive website. After reading through the book, you can view individual pages with additional informative captions on the site, look at videos with birding tips, and hear podcasts or radio interviews. The idea is to always be current.

Black-Scoter_300Take us through one plate, the Black Scoter, for example (page 69), and explain what we’re looking at.

This species has three distinctive plumages that are all shown and labeled: female, adult male, and first-year male. These are all shown again but smaller. They are not labeled, so that you can practice aging and sexing them yourself. There is a distant flock of “specks” on the water — just as we often see them. They are small and lack all the close-up details. Distance helps us to see what features are consistent: size, shape, and simple patterns of color. (Please note that I said “patterns of color.”) Flight shots are also shown near and far, showing shape, color patterns, and flock formation.

Hopefully, you will find the plate engaging. The best thing to do is to study and try to “break it down” for yourself. This way, you will remember it better. If you don’t, it does not matter because the text will help — plus, point out things you did not notice. In the case of Black Scoter, it mentions such things as their “incessant wailing call” (they call almost nonstop); males are often in small groups “wooing” a single female; they land with a belly flop; first-year birds have pale bellies; flock formation — all things that you can cross-reference with the plate. Habitat and behavior are a massive part of this book. Of course, it discusses what identification features to look at and compares it with the most similar species. The text also discusses things that are not shown in the plate. It does not waste words on plumage descriptions that are clearly visible in the plates.

For those who are not interested in all that detail, just enjoy looking at the scene. I do. Perhaps you can work out where it is. It questions the logic of nature-book design (even magazines) and how we learn. I am trying to change a culture. Given this and the international attention it has received, hopefully it will have an impact on education for all types of natural-history books.

Is a Crossley guide for western birds in the works? When will it be published?

A western version as well as several other books are being worked on as we speak. I don’t know when they will all be finished.

Were you able to shoot or obtain photos to illustrate every aspect of every bird that you wanted to include in the book? If no, why not?

I think this is probably impossible for any type of book. It would have to be the size of several encyclopedias. A good, balanced overview is what we should strive for. At the end of the day, a book never replaces life; it is just there to help us understand it better.

Are field guides that use artwork better suited than field guides that use photography to present nocturnal species such as the Eastern Whip-poor-will (page 271)?

Thanks for that question, Chuck. As mentioned earlier, we can make image colors pretty much what we want. We have more control than an artist using paint. Why did we put Whip-poor-will and many other nocturnal birds in a dark setting? Because they are nocturnal. It is how we see them — as simple as that. I am still waiting to see one in the daytime on a white background, perhaps on snow somewhere. (I would love to see that photo if someone has it.)

You write in the preface (page 5): “As technology advances, Crossley Books will be looking to push the boundaries and help promote birding and the outdoors. So watch this space!” What are you alluding to?

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has one million members (the equivalent of 5-6 million members in the United States). I was told by a former chairperson that the CFO of that organization can arrange a meeting with the prime minister about five to six times a year if desired. Think about this very carefully and the ramifications for conservation!

Where are we? A million miles from that scenario! I believe there is no reason for this other than that we have not worked out what others have done so much better than us. We have fantastic birding in the United States, with lots of poster birds that are recognizable to just about everyone. The vast majority of people I know have a birding story they want to tell me when they know I’m a birder. What have we done to bring these people into our world? Very little.

The way to popularize something is not rocket science. We need household birding and wildlife celebrities on TV and the Internet. This is how we market most things. At the moment, I believe James Currie of Birding Adventures TV is our greatest hope. If we can put our weight behind people like him, then we have a chance. As for Crossley Books, we will not be just books, but anything that helps the popularization of birding, the outdoors, and ultimately conservation. These can be exciting times. We just need to make it happen.

Who is the man in photo of the Rock Pigeon (page 275)? Who is the man in the photo of the Eastern Phoebe (page 345)?

They are people like you and me. I like people and buildings in images. They appear nearly everywhere we see birds. As for the young ladies with the Bar-tailed Godwits (page 165), they are Sophie and Sam, my beautiful daughters. I’m just a tad biased about them!

goldfinch plateYou write in the introduction (page 25): “Funnily enough, I grew up in a British birding culture where you didn’t take a guide into the field — only a notebook…. This was the ‘law.'” Are American birdwatchers inferior because American birding culture lacks this “law”?

Are you trying to get me into trouble? Okay then, yes. We are back to learning to look. If you take field notes, it forces you to fill in all the pieces of the puzzle. Quite simply, it is self-training. It opens up a new world of discovery, and confidence comes along with this.

The problem with field guides is that they can stop us from looking at birds. We see a bird in the field, then we look at the book and see a field mark that implies it’s Species A. We learn the name, tick it, and live happily ever after. But what did we learn? Probably a field mark or two, but in most cases just the name. We did not learn the essence of the bird; instead, we learned just a couple of things from a book.

We need to know its size, shape, how it behaved, where it appeared, how it called, and the details of color patterns. Only then are you going to get a really clear picture of the bird and its personality — one you will remember.

I often tell the story of how, when I first came to the United States, I was seeing a species of sparrow daily. I did not know the name because I felt the field guide’s portrayal was not good enough. However, I knew every detail of this bird — far better than the book. The key is learning the bird, not the name! Birds have personalities like humans. In fact, think of a loved one and describe him or her to yourself. If you mirror that description for birds, you will be in good shape.

Can we expect a version of the guide for our smart phone or iPad soon?

It’s definitely on the to-do list.