Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Field Guides, Part 2 (The two I don't recommend)

Transcript of tomorrow's For the Birds.
Magnolia Warbler
Magnolia Warbler (One of the many common Minnesota birds not found in Birds of Minnesota)

I very seldom write book reviews of books I don’t like. I have a lot of experience with field guides, and although I have two favorites, the National Geographic Guide and the Kaufman guide, I realize that we each use different strategies for birding and what may be perfect for one person won’t work as well for someone else.

But there are two guides that not only don’t seem useful to me, but seem actually misleading in important ways: Stan Tekiela's Birds of Minnesota (or of other states) and Richard Crossley's Crossley ID Guide. They’re both very big sellers, so my opinion is clearly not very widely held, but it might be useful to consider these issues before buying them.

Least Flycatcher
Least Flycatcher (One of the many common Minnesota birds not found in Birds of Minnesota)

The first is a whole series of guides, each titled "Birds of [a particular state]", such as Birds of Minnesota or Birds of Wisconsin. These guides show only a fraction of the birds of the state they’re covering. Birds of Minnesota covers only 111 species, though there are over 400 species found in the state. [The official state list last I checked included 437 species, including 312 regularly occurring species.] Some people think providing fewer possibilities makes it easier for beginners, so I went through the list of birds I figured out my very first spring of birding, before I knew other birders and had to struggle through identifications of everything, including chickadees and mallards. Of the 40 species I saw my first spring, 6 are not in Birds of Minnesota at all, nor in Birds of Illinois or Birds of Michigan, the states where I was doing most of my birding then. [These species are Nashville, Magnolia, Black-throated Green, and Blackburnian Warblers; Rough-winged Swallow; and Veery.]

Black-throated Green Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler (One of the common Minnesota birds not found in Birds of Minnesota)

We moved to our house in Duluth in July 1981, when I was pregnant and then dealing with a newborn. I saw 65 species in my backyard that first year. Of them, 16 species—almost 25%—are not in Birds of Minnesota. [These species are Rough-legged Hawk; Herring Gull; Least Flycatcher; Blue-headed, Philadelphia, and Red-eyed Vireos; Winter Wren; Tennessee, Orange-crowned, Nashville, Magnolia, Palm, and Blackpoll Warblers; Lincoln's Sparrow; Rusty Blackbird; and White-winged Crossbill.]

Red-eyed Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo (One of the common Minnesota species not found in Birds of Minnesota. Roger Tory Peterson once estimated that this bird was the most abundant songbird in North America. It isn't considered that anymore, but is still found in virtually every woodland and still breeds in some city neighborhoods in the Twin Cities and Duluth, where there are plenty of mature deciduous trees.)

It would have been endlessly frustrating for me to tease out identifications of such easy-to-find birds when they weren’t even in the book. Birds of Minnesota has a single photo for most species, and when males and female are both pictured, they can be widely spaced—the Common Goldeneye female is on page 44 while the male is on page 150.

Herring Gull
Herring Gull (One of the common Minnesota birds not shown in Birds of Minnesota)


The brand new Crossley ID Guide is selling like hotcakes. Although it’s larger than many family bibles, it’s eye-catching. Richard Crossley gives most species their own full page plate with a lot of photos pulled together on a single background, some in flight, some perched or swimming. For example, he has at least 13 different Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in the same scene. This allows you to look at them in different poses, ostensibly in their natural habitat. The trick is that many birds aren’t found in just one habitat. He shows Chipping Sparrows on a golf course rather than in the open coniferous woodlands where they are most abundant, perhaps more because he was enamored of his own cleverness in showing in the distance a golfer chipping a shot than because anyone is likely to head to a golf course in search of Chipping Sparrows. And because he used his own photos, some pages have a lot more than others, and the photo quality is uneven. In real life, one would never see 13 Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in close proximity, nor 11 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds perched or hovering peaceably together.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (One of the many species much too territorial to ever be found in the numbers shown in the Crossley ID Guide)

The plates are uneven in how carefully proportions of birds perched in the same tree were worked out—sometimes the near bird is so enormous compared to a bird photoshopped just a bit further back in the same tree that any beginner would be confused about how variable size is for that species. And some of the photos hurt my eyes—I decided it was probably both because of that size issue, and also because the birds were photographed in different lighting situations, and though he does a lot of color correction for that, there are enough differences in the way the light hits different birds, and in how they each were focused, that my eyes were straining to make the pictures make sense. Crossley also uses four-letter alpha codes rather than giving the names of birds he compares each species to. Four-letter codes have been standardized specifically for entering bird banding data, but most banders don’t even memorize these codes, which make reading the Crossley ID Guide more frustrating than helpful. This book is a clever novelty, but I suspect that birders who have a copy will quickly relegate it to a shelf or coffee table rather than actually using it.

Blue Jay
Blue Jay (One of the many species found in a great many different habitats besides the one shown in the Crossley ID Guide)

As I noted, I don’t like panning books, and if you’ve personally found either of these books to be particularly useful, let me know. If comments get too contentious or spammy, I'll have to cut them off, but will be happy to put together another blog post/radio program if there are compelling reasons to defend either of these books that I've missed. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a good field guide to give as a gift, I’d look at the new 6th edition of the National Geographic field guide or Kenn Kaufman’s, as posted in the previous blog post.