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Birding By Impression

Posted on Aug 6, 2015

The following is an excerpt from the Birding Community E-bulletin – July 2015 which is edited and distributed by Paul Baicich and Wayne Petersen. You can find the July 2015 edition here and all of Birding Community E-Bulletins here.


Practically all modern bird identification guides reflect a response to, or dialogue with, a 26-year-old Roger Tory Peterson who, in 1934, created a birding  breakthrough with the creation of his A Field Guide to the Birds (1934). Does this claim sound exaggerated?

Perhaps. But perhaps not.

The young Peterson unequivocally revolutionized bird identification, moving it from a museum-based and specimen-based pursuit to one that could be enjoyed and managed by almost anyone with binoculars and sufficient field time to understand and appreciate that bird identification “may be run down by impressions, patterns, and distinctive marks, rather than by the anatomical differences and measurements that the collector would find useful” (Peterson, 1934). With Peterson’s “new plan,” stressing color-values (rather than actual colors), profiles, and outstanding marks, even at a distance, bird watching would never be the same again.

Since then, there has seemingly always been a question of how much detail one might want, or need, in order to make an identification, thus marking the progressive contributions of all field guides since the introduction of the first Peterson guide. And all birders are the better for it.

An example of a recent variation on this theme and deserving special mention was The Shorebird Guide by Michael O’Brien, Richard Crossley, and Kevin Karlson (Houghton Mifflin 2006) – a guide which effectively deepened the emphasis on size, structure, behavior, and general color patterns when making identifications. Richard Crossley took this approach further with his Crossley ID Guide, Eastern Birds (Princeton 2011) – and his follow-up guides to raptor identification and identification of European birds – stressing size, structure, shape, behavior, probability, and color patterns.

Now, Kevin Karlson and Dale Rosselet have pushed the envelope with their new Birding by Impression (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2015), with its subtitle “A Different Approach to Knowing and Identifying Birds.”

Birding By Impression

RTPI’s Jane Johnson, Communications & Public Programs Coordinator, reading Birding By Impression

The assertion that this is a “different approach” may be debatable however. A birding-by-impression (BBI) approach still represents a back-to-fundamentals approach to bird ID, which underscores the notion that an initial appreciation of size and shape is a prerequisite to the identification process. Karlson and Rosselet do an admirable job in presenting ID issues and ID problems in their family-by-family presentation, all skillfully illustrated with fine photos, and intertwined with regular quizzes throughout their book.

Although some choices of species covered appear to be eclectic; others are eminently logical and much-desired. Clearly, there is something in this book for everybody. Are you having grebe problems? It’s in there. How about egrets? Well done. Plovers? The group is covered. Nightjars? There are some fine hints. And swifts? The book has good material. Are you confused by yellow kingbirds? The book should help. And how about blackbirds? You could learn something from the coverage in this handsome new guide.

Perhaps you will even be convinced that BBI has been developing and deepening ever since the presses at Houghton Mifflin  rolled in 1934 with the printing of RTP’s book, including some bumps and detours along the way. Or, perhaps you will choose to deny the connection. Regardless, the new Karlson and Rosselet guide is full of juicy information and ID skill-building that deserves close attention.