Q & A with Richard Crossley

An interview with Richard Crossley, author of The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds

Why did you decide to create a new guide?
I love looking and learning from great images and artwork; however, I have never found what I considered the perfect book. With advances in technology, I wanted to take on the challenge of creating the book that I'd like to have: one that is interactive, creates a response from the viewer, entertains and ultimately educates. I believe that this sets The Crossley ID Guide apart from other books.

The plates in The Crossley ID Guide are truly spectacular--how do you decide which backgrounds and bird images to use?
I choose or take images that most accurately portray both the birds' plumage and behavior in typical habitat--as I would want to paint them. Getting the images that create the depth in these scenes has been the most challenging aspect of this book.

Most field guides use arrows to point out identifying features of the birds. I noticed your plates are presented clean. Why is this?
I'd like people to see birds the way I do. This includes a combination of features that I call 'the basics' (size, shape, behavior, probability and color patterns) that add up to create one image. This is the same way we see people! Using arrows takes away from the clear 'big picture' and stops the viewer looking at the scene as a whole. In my book, I feel it is the smaller images in the background that are the most educational and don't want to take away from this. The text gives direction, but without losing the depth in the scenes.

Size, shape, behavior, probability, and color patterns, in that order? What do we gain by looking at birds this way? Has the usefulness of color been over-emphasized in identification?
Size and shape are the least variable factors in ID. As with people, behavior and probability are large, often underestimated factors. Color is the most changeable characteristic. Birds have multiple plumages with large variation within each plumage. Factor in aberrant birds, light conditions and you are left with a big headache. It just makes sense to de-emphasize color in ID and think more in terms of where a bird is darkest and lightest. It is patterns of color that are important, not the intensity of the color itself. I identify 90% of birds without seeing color. Do you need to see color to ID a loved one?

You've noted that The Crossley ID Guide teaches birders of any level to bird like experts. What do you mean by this and why does it work better?
I believe birding, like most things, is about doing the simple things well. There's a tendency to over-complicate. This book focuses on the basics mentioned above, giving everyone a chance to improve their ID skills with many opportunities to practice on close and distant images. How much and what you take from these scenes depends on how closely you look and which images impact you.

Birding is an incredibly popular pursuit in the U.K. Why do you think birding has not caught on yet in the U.S.?
Birding and the outdoors in general has been part of mainstream TV, with instantly recognizable celebrities in the UK since the 1970s. A young die-hard crowd of travelers--'Twitchers'-- with associated crazy stories only fuelled this, giving it a trendier image to young people than in the United States.

Yet, as you've pointed out in the past, lots of Americans who don't self-identify as birders have more than a passing interest in birds--they put out feeders, can identify backyard visitors and the like. Why is there this disconnect and what steps must be taken to engage these people?
Almost every popular pursuit has its leaders. These tend to be prominent on TV and the internet. We listen to them and invariably follow their advice - popularizing the interest or hobby. To this point, birding hasn't had such an individual or one countrywide organization to unify and promote birding. The Royal Society for Protection of Birds in the UK has over 1 million members (over 100,000 in the youth division alone). The potential in the US is staggering, but it still has to be made to happen.

What are some of the misconceptions people have about birding?
I'm not sure. For me, birding is a sport--at times dangerous, obsessive, available 24/7 with limitless possibilities. I can't think of too many other sports like that (and I played a few).

The sports analogy is interesting because it emphasizes the challenge inherent in birding--what would your advice be to someone who thinks birding is too hard or that bird identification is too difficult?
As with any sport, practice makes perfect. The frustration in birding can come from trying to name every bird. I often tell people, learn the bird, not the name. Carefully look at the bird, create a mental image and remember it for what it is. Taking field notes is the best way to do this. The reward is you'll realize your skills are improving, you'll see things you've never noticed before and gain more satisfaction in birding. Naming the bird will become secondary. The Crossley Id Guide is the first book that will enable you to do this in your own home.

You are a passionate promoter of birding for children and young adults and have even set up a kids' bird club and run classes for your local school. Why is it so important for children to be involved?
Simply, they are the future. For example, if you look at all the well-known birders who went on to make a difference; they all started birding as kids. There are many reasons but birding can give kids a better appreciation of the outdoors, improved quality of life and help to preserve our future.

Why did you decide to start with the Eastern birds? What plans do you have for future books?
My dad said, "Always start at home with what you know best." Not only that, but the magnitude of getting all the images had to be manageable. As for future projects, the list is long and perhaps surprising. It's always been my style to keep a few tricks up my sleeve!

Field guides generally fall into two camps--painted or photographed. In many ways your book moves beyond this distinction because of the layered image panels. How would you describe the book?
The object of a guide, whether painted or photographed, is to replicate what we see in life. I see an in-focus image that goes from near to far. The concept is simple--to create scenes that portray this.

And speaking of crazy "twitching" stories--do you have one from your experiences in the field?
I hitchhiked over 100,000 miles chasing birds, mostly while I was at college. There are many stories, some not suitable for print! The travel, excitement, camaraderie and knowledge gained made this the most memorable and crazy time of my life.