Phoebe Snetsinger, Birdwatcher Extraodinaire

Philip Roston is apparently the most accomplished birdwatcher, or at least lister, as he has seen 9,607 species out of a possible 10,500+. There are a number of other birdwatchers with impressive records, though. A list is on Wikipedia. But a person with “only” 8400 species on her list is notable, and her name is Phoebe.

Phoebe Snetsinger was born in 1921 in Illinois. Her father, Leo Burnett, was the ad exec who made famous the Jolly Green Giant, the Marlboro Man, Toucan Sam, Charlie the Tuna, Morris the Cat, the Pillsbury Doughboy and Tony the Tiger. His successes and financial rewards eventually enabled Phoebe to travel the world in search of birds.

She is notable because she started birdwatching late in life after a grim health diagnosis, and in only 15 years amassed a list of bird sightings that would make us all envious.

Phoebe Snetsinger

When she started keeping a list, there were 8,500 officially named species, compared with over 10,000 now. Her list of more than 2,000 bird genera far surpassed anyone else’s, and she was especially interested in monotypic genera, those genera that contain only one species of bird. She also kept notes on subspecies and geographic races that have since been elevated to the species level. So her life list of 8,400 species continues to grow even after her death in 1999.

Growing up, Snetsinger attended a one-room elementary school. At eleven, she met her future husband, David Snetsinger, then thirteen, in the 4-H club. She graduated from Swarthmore College as a German major and eventually earned a master’s degree in German literature. She and her husband, a scientist and administrator, eventually drifted apart but didn’t divorce. She wrote dark, despairing poems, describing her marriage as “a stodgy, graceless, larval time.”

When Snetsinger was 34, a friend introduced her to bird watching, and the sight of a Blackburnian Warbler changed her life. With her photographic memory and a fierce will to learn, she proved an excellent birder. Birding went from a hobby to a passion for Snetsinger in 1981 when a doctor told her she had terminal melanoma cancer and a short time to live. Rejecting therapy, she took off to Alaska on a scheduled trip, her first long-distance journey simply to see birds. She was 49.

Snetsinger liked to say her love of birds ”began with a death sentence,” and her relentless energy reflected that level of urgency as her cancer went into the first of several remissions. “Birding has meant a variety of things to many different people,” Snetsinger once wrote in an article for a nature club, “but for me it has been intricately intertwined with survival.” After her diagnosis she spent more time in the wilds of the world – jungles, swamps, deserts – than she did at home. She was most comfortable with her binoculars, floppy hat, and notebook.

Many of her birding tours cost more than $5,000, and she maintained this travel schedule for 18 years after her diagnosis! There were setbacks, as the melanoma recurred every five years or so, but they always went into remission again. She died in an auto accident on a birding expedition to Madagascar, shortly after viewing an exceptionally rare Helmet or Red-shouldered Vanga, depending on the story one reads. She was 68.

Well, with a name like Phoebe, she almost had to be a birder. Fortunately she had the time and money to travel extensively on all continents to reach her 8,400 species. A few other people have gone as far in pursuit of birds, but only about 250 of them have ever hit the 5,000 mark, perhaps 100 people have seen 6,000 and only a few have seen more than 7,000.

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