Review: 'Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds' by Olivia Gentile an exciting biography of a dedicated birdwatcher

A bird in the hand was never enough for Phoebe Snetsinger.

In 1995, Snetsinger became the first person in history to score 8,000 species of birds on what birders call her life list — a record of birds observed firsthand in nature.

And if you think that means she was a nice little lady who puttered around her back yard with binoculars, think again.

Or better yet, read Life List, author and journalist Olivia Gentile's engaging and often exciting biography of Snetsinger.

In pursuit of her feathered quarry, Snetsinger spent more than 30 years (and at least a small fortune) traveling the globe. She scaled the Andes and Himalayas and hiked through swamps and rain forests, undeterred by injury or illness, tribal warfare, even a gang rape.

After an earthquake struck one night during a trip to Costa Rica and her tour group ran out of their bucking cabin, she said, "Well, we're up. We might as well go look for owls."

On one of her last birding trips, to the Philippines, Snetsinger fell while descending a mountain and fractured her wrist in three places. She convinced herself and her companions that it was a sprain and continued the trip for more than a week of hiking and mountain climbing.

She was 67 at the time.

Although Snetsinger's daring adventures as a birder make up most of Life List, Gentile puts Snetsinger in context, and an interesting context it is.

Born in 1931 in Illinois, Phoebe Burnett was the daughter of the founder of one of Chicago's most successful advertising agencies.

An exceptional student, Phoebe went to Swarthmore in 1949, entering the honors program and aiming for a degree in chemistry. But while she was back home the summer between her sophomore and junior years, she began dating a high school friend, Dave Snetsinger.

In the fall, she switched her major from chemistry to German. Instead of the fast track for a potentially distinguished scientific career, Phoebe, like so many women of her postwar generation, went for the Mrs. degree.

She and Dave married the day after she graduated, and in short order he had a promising job at Purina (he specialized in chicken feed) and she had four babies.

She loved her kids, but before long Snetsinger was a case study right out of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique: bored and unsatisfied with her stay-at-home suburban lifestyle.

Snetsinger began birding with a friend in 1965 and experienced what she called "a blinding white light" when she looked through binoculars at a Blackburnian warbler, a black and white bird with a yellow head and a "throat the color of a ripe mango." Struck by its beauty, she wrote later, "Here was something that had been happening all my life, and I'd never paid any attention to it."

But birding did not become her full-time obsession until 1981, when she was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma and told she would be dead in a year.

She threw herself into her life list with passion, aided by the explosion in popularity of birding and the rapid growth of knowledge about bird species and of tours tailored to birders all over the world.

Her health defied the doctors, and Snetsinger thrived as a birder, becoming deeply knowledgeable and intensely competitive as well as utterly intrepid. This time, she refused to let her gender hold her back, even though birding, then and now, is dominated by men. (In the most recent tally, only two of the top 30 listers in the world are women.)

But her birding took a toll on her marriage, which had been growing distant for years, and on her other family relationships. When her mother was dying, she canceled a birding trip to stay with her — but left on another trip before the funeral. Snetsinger missed one daughter's wedding and pressured another to change the date of hers because of birding tours. Yet she was shocked and angry when her husband asked for a divorce.

Gentile shows us both sides of Snetsinger's life, but her birding adventures are, as they must have been for her, the more vivid. It's a singular pursuit, often perilous and difficult (not to mention expensive). And its object is pure observation — nothing is consumed, captured, killed.

But it is essential that the sighting is firsthand: Whatever wild place the bird is in, the birder goes to it. In an era when we think we've experienced something because we saw it on YouTube, birding seems a grand obsession indeed.

Snetsinger lived for 18 years after doctors delivered her death sentence. She died, as she had said enviously of one friend's death, with her binoculars in her hand. Life List catches her on the wing, a rare species well worth observing.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

Life List:
A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds

By Olivia
Gentile

Illustrations by Rebecca Layton

Bloomsbury, 345 pages, $26

Review: 'Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds' by Olivia Gentile an exciting biography of a dedicated birdwatcher 07/10/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 10, 2009 3:08pm]

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