Why is it so rare that little girls are fascinated by birds early in life compared to little boys? Phoebe Snetsinger’s autobiography begins with this question about her more than 30 years of fascination with birds and how she managed to become the first and so far only woman who has observed over 8500 different bird species in their natural habitats.
After the first chapter one could already have an inkling of the answer to the opening question: the different socialization, the lack of stimulation from parents and teachers or simply the lack of time that one can spend in nature as a child. It wasn’t until late, at the age of 34, that Phoebe Snetsinger had that magical moment when she looked through binoculars with full consciousness for the first time to see a very specific bird. She was accompanied by a neighbor who regularly watched birds and through the glasses she saw a colorful, small and quite ordinary bird, a Blackburnian warbler. The bright orange-yellow glowing bird literally knocked her down in amazement – and made her addicted for the rest of her life (p. 18).
About the Author
Phoebe Snetsinger was born in 1931 and grew up in Chicago and later in Lake County, Illinois. She studied German literature and worked as a teacher in Philadelphia. She had four children with her husband David and moved to Minnesota. It was here, where she had the inspiring encounter with the wood warbler. In 1967 the family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where Phoebe Snetsinger joined a weekly bird watching group and soon became known locally. She used every opportunity, disguising one or the other birding trip as a family vacation (p. 23) and thus also let her children participate in the growing passion.
Sometimes one reads the question: Who was Phoebe Snetsinger? And answering this question is not easy. She was mother and wife in an America that had clear ideas about how a woman should shape her life in the 1960s. At the same time she was the first woman, and the first person ever, with over 8000 species of birds observed (and by observed she also meant more than just a fleeting glance). The relationship between these two sides of her personality was not uncomplicated.
She described herself as a tomboy, a rather boyish girl who clung to the heels of her brothers and roamed a lot through the area to experience the „more interesting and pleasant things“ (p. 15).
It’s not just the sheer unbelievable amount of bird species that she has demonstrably observed – in 1998 it were 8512 (p. 214) of the 10,200 known species at that time (or 83.8%, as Phoebe Snetsinger preferred to put it) – but also the circumstances under which she asserted herself in what was then an absolutely male-dominated scene.
On the occasion of her 85th birthday in 2016 – seventeen years after her tragic death – Google created a really nice doodle in honor of Phoebe Snetsinger. The doodle signals the growing interest of girls and women in birding (2), in whose community there is sometimes still a subtle tutelage by male participants.
Peter Kaestner, whom Phoebe Snetsinger met in Malaysia in 1991 and who at the time had only about 100 fewer species on his life list (p. 12), writes in his foreword that it was above all her integrity and her excessive specialist knowledge (p. 3) that made this success possible for Phoebe Snetsinger. Kaestner’s most important principles of his birding philosophy were to work intensively himself and to be helpful to others. Phoebe not only felt connected to this motto, she even felt that no words better expressed her own approach (p. 137).
Kaestner makes another point, which underlines the remarkable achievement of Phoebe Snetsinger: Birding back then was different from today. There was no internet, no identification app, no cell phones. Digital cameras that enable the birds to be captured quickly – and a relaxed identification at home – were also not yet available; you had to determine what you saw on site. In addition, there weren’t even such comprehensive identification books as they are today (p. 6). Even the companies that offered professionally organized birding tours were limited to a handful of operators focused on East Africa, Australia or Costa Rica at the beginning of the 1980s (p. 7)
Phoebe in detail prepared for each trip, studied the few available determination books and taxonomies meticulously, learned even the scientific names in Latin, and emphasized several times that precise prior knowledge of a species is essential when determining it on site. She describes this in detail in Chapter 4 of her book. It was these preparatory studies that ultimately made her an expert, because there were many in the emerging birder scene who hardly knew what they were seeing during the tours and who simply trusted on the determin of species by the tour guide (p. 3). Sometimes she also went to the Natural History Museum and took photos of the birds on display there when there was no literature on birds in an area (p. 63).
After a trip to Kenya in 1977, her documentation system was created, consisting of 3×5 inch index cards on which she noted the species, place and date, as well as notes on the sighting. She developed a color code for different regions (p. 30). She was very keen on this system, especially when in the 1990s the taxonomies were revised by research findings and many species were divided because it could be genetically proven that the degree of kinship between the subspecies allowed their own species status. There were also cards of species that she had only heard and which – contrary to the ABA regulations – she did not count.
about the book
From the notes that Phoebe Snetsinger made very carefully during each of her trips, this chronological biography of her birding career was created, starting with the sighting of the Blackburnian warbler in 1967 up to her last trip to Madagascar in November 1999, where she was killed in an accident with the tour bus. In the epilogue, which her son Thomas wrote, the last hours of her life are told.
To a large extent, the book is a report on the many tours and trips that Phoebe Snetsinger has undertaken. She enumerates successful sightings and orientates herself in her life story mainly on the „milestones“, ie the species which took her to the next higher level in her world list and her North America list. It is also these milestones that triggered the excitement of the competition in her. As she approached her 5000th species of bird, she writes that some other birders had already reached the 5000 sighting mark before her – all of them men – and that she very much appealed to the idea of being the first woman. From that time on the competitive aspect was her driving motivation (p. 85).
But between her lists of bird species, descriptions of tour organizations and field guide portraits, as well as reflections on the documentation and counting of successful sightings, one also reads a lot of personal information. She names some things very specifically: the earthquake in Costa Rica, the kidnapping and rape in Papua New Guinea, the death of a travel companion in Nepal, shipwreck off Java, the deforestation of the rainforest in the Philippines. The thoughts that accompany these experiences reveal a lot about the person Phoebe Snetsinger. In late 1993, during a family reunion, her husband stated that he was planning to divorce her. Their lifestyles and interests were too different. The following year they both worked hard on their relationship.
One more thing always comes up when it comes to Phoebe Snetsinger and her life’s work: melanoma. In 1976 she was diagnosed with black skin cancer. The tumor was removed and for eight years the problem seemed to be resolved. During a tour in Panama in 1981, however, Phoebe noticed a swollen lymph node, which after the examination turned out to be a metastasis of the earlier skin cancer, with an extremely hopeless prognosis. She was given about a year, provided the entire medical procedure – surgery, chemotherapy, radiation – but she decided against it. After the tumor had been removed, she left for Alaska because she would rather live happily for another three months than rush from treatment to treatment for a year only to die in the end. But what happened next is what gave the book its name: she was given time, nearly twenty more years, doing what she loved more than anything: birdwatching. The tumor came back twice more. Each time she had it removed and then set out again to find more birds.
About the Illustrations
Ornithologist and artist Douglas Pratt, whom she met on a trip to Micronesia in 1993, contributed 45 drawings to the book. There are 16 color plates in the middle of the book and another 29 black and white illustrations, all of which show Phoebe’s milestones. The cover is also by Doug Pratt and shows the Blackburnian warbler who was something like Phoebe’s initial spark. Most of the illustrations can also be viewed on Douglas Pratt’s homepage, where he offers the originals for sale.
Furthermore, in the appendix of the book there are some pictures of the index cards that Phoebe used to document her sightings. An overview map with the countries she has traveled to is also included in the back cover of the book.
The book is written excitingly from start to finish. There is the competition for the species sightings, which only gets more exciting the longer you read, as it is only a personal advance at first, but later turns into a race for the title of the first person with 8000 species of birds sighted. At the same time there is also the disease of cancer, which makes itself felt again and again. But especially on the last pages you can clearly feel the sword of Damocles, the approaching end, which you already know: the bus accident in Madagascar.
Phoebe Snetsinger’s private life, her marriage and her role as both mother and daughter are also exciting. Her decisions for birding often seem as decisions against the people closest to her, but for her birding was a survival strategy. A year after the recurring diagnosis of cancer and dealing with the emotions and thoughts about life and death, the feeling germinated in her that she could run away from the disease. Sitting in a plane and flying towards unfamiliar places and birds made her feel invincible, something that helped her overcome the fear that cancer was causing (p. 71).
This new life, which she led for almost twenty years, was only possible because of the considerable inheritance that her father had left her. The trips cost an average of $ 5,000 (1) and by the beginning of the 1990s she traveled around the globe up to six times a year. But considering such an achievement from a purely financial perspective would be far too short-sighted. Each of these trips required planning, preparation and, last but not least, psychological and physical strength to carry them out.
It was her destiny, her passion for this life as an observer and discoverer, that gave her enormous strength of will to even keep the disease of cancer in check.
For me, her biography is permeated with delicate parallels to my own life as a mother and passionate birder. I know the inner conflict of being tied to a household and its obligations and at the same time planning every free minute of the year with trips and birdwatching opportunities. For me, the book is an inspiration to be more courageous against the social expectations of a “decent” life, but also to listen to the inner voice and to follow one’s own passion.
Titel: Birding on borrowed time
Autor: Phoebe Snetsinger
Cover: Paperback, 307 pages
First appearance: 2003
published by: American Birding Association
Homepage of the American Birding Association
Homepage of Douglas Pratt and his art
Website of the Google Doodle in honor of Phoebe Snetsinger’s 85th birthday
Other sources referred to in the text above:
(1) article from the New York Times dated December 2, 1999
(2) article from the Independent from June 8, 2016