I don't remember when in the early 90s I first heard about Phoebe Snetsinger, the indomitable middle-aged birder who became a legend chasing birds around the world in a quest to see more than 8,000 bird species. I never got a chance to meet her, but her daughter Marmot worked on the same project I did in Montana one summer, and in the mid-90s I house-sat for some mutual friends in Austin as they joined her on a few privately organized birding expeditions. Her persistence, attention to detail, and note-taking were famous and we were proud to see her as a birding hero.
I remember hearing and discussing her death (in a van accident on a birding expedition to Madagascar) in the fall of 1999 when I was just starting my PhD program. My own chasing about after new birds was starting to slow down as I faced the challenges of grad school and parenthood. When the American Birding Association published her memoir Birding on Borrowed Time, I got it from inter library loan and enjoyed what I thought would be the ultimate account of her birding exploits.
Frankly, when I heard that Olivia Gentile was coming out with a new biography of Snetsinger, I wondered why in the world we would ever want or need another book about the late great birder. Birding on Borrowed Time had pretty much covered all the trips and all the birds that she had seen, and seemed like the definitive bio.
Now, having read Life List, I'm grateful that Gentile took the time to revisit Snetsinger's life and times. With much more background on Snetsinger's family and copious details provided by friends and family, we get another view of the determined, and even obsessed, bird lister. A view that contributes to her memory, as well as to the growing literature chronicling the social and emotional toll that so frequently encumbers serious birding.
As with Dan Koeppel's To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifetime Obsession, Gentile's book shows in heart-rending detail the emotional costs that serious birding demands from those caught by the siren song of increasingly harder to find new birds, and from their closest family members. As we read about Snetsinger's exploits, we birders may feel twinges of jealousy--so many great birds and birding trips!--but also recoil from the emotional devastation that Snetsinger left in her wake.
And we may see hints of these same dual forces in our own lives. I already mentioned how my own bird chasing started dropping off in grad school as I struggled to juggle family, school, birding, and other competing interests. On my recent trip to Europe I fought off temptations to hijack weekend family time towards a pursuit of Eagle Owls and other lusted after avians. Its hard to get enough of both family time and birds--unless you're willing to write off one or the other.
Back when I was house-sitting for friends who were off on birding adventures, and before kids came to my family, some of the tour leaders mentioned in Gentile's book met me for a bite to eat at the Whole Foods in Austin. They told me about how great it was to be in the field, as well as how difficult it would be to have a family as a tour leader. One result of that conversation was that I ended up going back to grad school rather than trying to make a career of bird tour leading.
Fifteen years later, I've got the advanced degrees, a job at Audubon, and still manage to get out and see birds pretty much every day. Sometimes I even get to travel to see birds. Reading Life List, I revisit not only Snetsinger's exploits, but my own birding path, with the inevitable decisions that become signposts along the way. My own life list is far, far smaller than that of many of my friends. We all make choices. Hopefully, as you enjoy reading about Phoebe Snetsinger and her choices, you'll appreciate the ones that you make every day in your own efforts to fully enjoy birds along with whatever else gives you joy.
And if you are like me, it will inspire you to take even more birding trips in the near future!
Audio: Blue Jay imitating Red-shouldered Hawk
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