Book Review: “The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors”

by Brooke McDonald

“The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors” is billed by the publisher, Princeton, as “comprehensive and authoritative,” “the most complete guide to North American raptors,” and “ideal for the beginning and novice birder.” Does the book live up to these claims?

Unfortunately, no.

Crossley ID RaptorsThe book’s three authors, Richard Crossley, Jerry Liguori, and Brian Sullivan, come with impressive resumes. Richard Crossley is best known for his novel approach to field guides, and he is also a co-author of “The Shorebird Guide.” Jerry Liguori is the author of the excellent “Hawks from Every Angle” and “Hawks at a Distance.” Brian Sullivan is the co-author of the yet-to-be-published “Princeton Guide to North American Birds;” he is also the project leader for eBird and the photo editor for “North American Birds” and Cornell’s Birds of North America Online.

The “Crossley ID Guide: Raptors” begins with a five-page introduction that discusses migration and molt, shows the various parts of a bird, and gives a too-brief overview of the different raptor groups. The layout of the main body of the book is slightly old-fashioned, with the plates, for which the Crossley guides are famous, preceding the species accounts. Each plate has several images of the species in question and a caption of a few paragraphs. There are also several quiz plates in the book, which were fun and useful for practicing raptor identification.

The introductory material is too short; it needed additional text and images to put the different species and groups into a larger context. Since the book is intended for beginning birders, even a simple plate with pointers for distinguishing the accipiters from species such as Hook-billed Kite and Red-Shouldered Hawk would have been helpful. Although the book does have a glossary, it’s inconveniently buried on page 284 between the answers for the quiz plates and the acknowledgements. The glossary doesn’t include all the terms that are used in the text, so when the book says, “Unlike American Kestrels, White-tailed Kites do not kite,” the reader is left to wonder what the authors could have possibly meant.

While most of the plates give a decent range of images, iconic views of some species are left out. In the foreword to Liguori’s “Hawks at a Distance,” Pete Dunne points out that distant birds don’t get fainter or fuzzier, but instead contrasts sharpen and “patterns not visible before tighten and become manifest.” Most of the perched birds are depicted at very close range, so the patterns that experienced birders use to identify distant perched birds, such as the white V on the scapulars of a Red-tailed Hawk or the shockingly white bib on some Rough-legged Hawks, are neither shown in the plates nor mentioned in the text. The species account for Common Black-Hawk says that, “In flight, adults are unmistakable,” but none of the plates depict the classic spread-tailed soar that makes the species look so short-tailed and so immediately recognizable under the right conditions; in fact, a reader might be left with the impression that Common Black-Hawk is not readily differentiable from Zone-tailed Hawk!

The plate captions suffer under the weight of qualifiers, emphasis on variable and obscure features, ageing and sexing pointers, and the kinds of seemingly subjective comparisons that serve to frustrate beginners. Almost every identifying feature is stated in such a way that even though there were a lot of words used, the reader would not be enlightened about how to identify the species. For example, the captions are full of statements like, “immature Golden Eagles have either considerable white in the wings or none at all,” and “Like some other buteos, 1st-year Rough-legged Hawks have pale primary panels that are most noticeable on the topside and visible from below only at certain times.”

This book feels like it was rushed to production, and I wondered at several points if there was a communication breakdown between the authors. The book does not appear to have been edited, and there are several layout choices that should have been questioned, such as the decision to only use banding codes in the comparison plate inside the front cover and the decision to put Crested Caracara (which is related to the falcons) in between Black Vulture and California Condor.

Crossley Turkey Vulture

Worst of all, some statements in the text are either patently untrue or they’re misleading enough that they shouldn’t have been in the book. For example, the book says that Turkey Vultures are “skittish” birds that are “only slightly smaller than eagles” and have “long tails that are typically wedge-shaped at the tip.” A reader might be legitimately confused about how to tell a White-tailed Kite from a Northern Harrier when the book says, “like Harriers, White-tailed Kites fly with a dihedral,” kites have “languid, Harrier-like wingbeats,” they are “roughly the size of a Northern Harrier,” and “adult male Northern Harrier is… similar in plumage.” Northern Harrier is, in turn, only differentiated in the text from Swainson’s Hawk by its “longer tail, less pointed wings, and broad white rump,” which are utterly subjective features.

In summary, the authors of this book, in their desire to be comprehensive, seem to have forgotten that they were writing a book for beginners. Raptor identification is a challenge, even for experts, and hopefully the second edition will do a better job at helping beginners to learn these fascinating birds.

This is my opinion. Tell us what YOU think of the Raptor guide in the comments!

Crossley ID Raptors The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors

by Richard Crossley, Jerry Liguori & Brian Sullivan.

Princeton University Press, 2013.

304 pp. | 7 1/2 x 10 | 101 color plates. 34 color maps.
ISBN: 9780691157405.
$29.95 list price

 Click to buy


Princeton University Press provided a review copy of this book.

Brooke McDonald is a technical editor for an environmental consulting firm in Northern California. In her free time she birds, gardens, plays with her dogs, and just for fun researches an obscure Calvinist sect.



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