Life List – A Review with thoughts on Phoebe

Phoebe Snetsinger was the ultimate “lister”, famous for seeing more birds than any person in the world.  She passed away in 1999, while on a birding trip in Madagascar. She became a birder when she was a young wife and mother. She became a lister when she was diagnosed with metastatic malignant melanoma when she was about 50.
Sandy Hook: Blackburnian Warbler 2
Blackburnian Warbler was Phoebe’s “spark bird”, the bird that famously made her a birder.

I originally wrote this review of Life List, a biography of Phoebe Snetsinger by Olivia Gentile, for the QCBC Newsletter in 2009. I read the book right before my trip to Ecuador, and thought of Phoebe frequently as I prepared.  I studed neo-tropical birds, because that is what Phoebe would do.  I sprayed my hiking pants with Repel and wondered if Phoebe used bug spray or if, in her magic-ness, she was immune to bug bites.  I was thrilled to find out, once I got to Sacha Lodge, that one of my birding companions, a charming older man named Gus, had birded with Phoebe.  She was a nice woman, he told me, in a certain tone of voice.  A little intense, he later added.  There was probably a story there, but Gus never said more.

I love the fact that one of the most famous birders in the contemporary world was a woman. A competitive woman! There are many female birders, but there have been too many times that I’ve been the only woman in the group of obsessed birders looking for The Bird. What would Phoebe do? Would she be self-conscious? Would she stand quietly in the background? Oh no! I don’t think so!

Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds, by Olivia Gentile. NY, Bloombury Books, 2009.

And how many birds are on your life list? For most birders, that question  brings on discussion (what is countable?) or argument (the green footprint of “listers”) or reminiscence (that great trip for the Gloucester Ivory Gull).  For Phoebe Snetsinger, that question was her life. Literally. This is the Phoebe Snetsinger myth, as told to me by a Central Park birder: Phoebe, a housewife and mother of four from Webster Groves, Missouri, was told by her doctor that she had cancer and 6-months to live. Phoebe rejected treatment and started birding. After 6-months she was still alive! So, Phoebe continued birding around the world, and when she finally died 18 years later, 1999, not from cancer but from an automobile accident on a birding trip, she had seen more than anyone else in the world. She had seen over 8,000 bird species. (The exact number of species depends on which taxonomy you use. Phoebe developed her own taxonomy, and according to that she had a life list of 8,674 when she died.)

I was surprised when I heard that Olivia Gentile, a writer who is not a birder, was writing a biography of Phoebe Snetsinger. I had read Phoebe’s memoir, Birding on Borrowed Time (published by the American Birding Association), and I wondered: What else was there to say? In her memoir, published posthumously with a concluding chapter by her son, Phoebe very thoroughly describes her life before and after birding, including a whole chapter on her documentation system! (As a librarian, that was my favorite chapter.)

Well, it turns out, there was a lot more. Whereas Birding on Borrowed Time is a rather dry narrative, Life List is a thoughtful examination of the life of an intelligent woman coming into her own. Gentile emphasizes the fact that Phoebe was birding intensively well-before she received her diagnosis. (Her trigger bird, seen when she was 34-years old, was a Blackburnian Warbler.) She sees Phoebe’s immersion into birding as both a reaction to and an escape from the years she spent as a housewife and mother, putting aside ambitions for her own career and supporting that of her husband Dave, which was what women did in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Gentile examines how Phoebe’s birding changed over the years, how she progressed from simply enjoying nature to obsessive worldwide birding to compulsive competitive listing She retells many of the birding adventures that Phoebe describes in her memoir, but with the added perspectives of trip leaders, birding companions, and the family that Phoebe increasingly ignored.

Gentile is not a birder, she is clearly struggling throughout the book to understand why birders, not just Phoebe but all the birders she brings into the story, are obsessed. But, she does take care to describe some of the more exotic and important birds that Phoebe observes, the birds-of-paradise of New Guinea, White-necked Rockfowl (Phoebe’s nemesis bird till she went to the Ivory Coast on her own just to see it), Helmet Vanga, the target bird on her last trip to Madagascar. The birds are illustrated in water color by Rebecca Layton, and I wish there were more of them, they are lovely.

What Gentile lacks in birder empathy is made up for in her descriptions of what it was like to bird the world in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Phoebe developed her life list at a wonderful time in birding history, when companies like Bird Bonanza were being started, field guides to birds in Central and South America were being written, and “listing” was a nascent obsession. So, as Phoebe takes hundreds of trips to seven continents, we meet the birders she travelled with, many of them discoverers of new species or founders of the new bird touring companies. We learn about the many misadventures that could befall birders in a foreign country, including Phoebe’s own abduction and gang rape in Papua New Guinea.  (This horrible event, brushed off by Phoebe as unfortunate but not worth talking about, is seen by Gentile as highly significant.)  And, we experience how Phoebe’s heart “stopped” when she saw the Harpy Eagle in Amazonian Peru, her euphoria at unexpectedly seeing Blakiston’s Fish-Owl in Japan, and, always, the anticipation and excitement of planning to go somewhere new to look for birds.

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