The new biography – Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds – is the result of a masterful job of investigating and vividly describing the personality, the extreme will to achieve, and the previously unknown life of Phoebe Snetsinger, the famous first lady of world birding. Learning about Phoebe’s birding accomplishments, as well as her various travel adventures and misadventures, will be fascinating to birders, and these components are well explained in this easy-reading page-turner. But author Olivia Gentile goes far beyond mere fact telling about birding and birding achievements. Offered here is a deeper and broader view of a somewhat desperate but very determined housewife and mother of four toddlers, who by the end of the 1990’s saw more species than anyone else, and who gained “hero status” among the most serious of birders, and became a legend in her own time.
Using seven years of research and a sharp eye for essential detail and nuance, the author has created a clear-eyed view of a lady with endearing personal qualities and a patient and generous attitude toward fellow birders. Yet Phoebe also possessed a definite “blind-spot” in terms of self-knowledge and how her compulsive bird chasing impacted her husband and four children. The fact that Phoebe possessed her share of demons, and she overcame incredibly difficult life-changing and near-death obstacles, and did so using the kind of motivations and personal commitment that most serious birders will readily identify with, makes her life story all the more intriguing and stimulating. But at the same time, some birders certainly could benefit by learning how a keen passion can quickly become a total obsession at the expense of those who ought to receive the most attention.
To the mind of this Yank writer, Life List provides absorbing and informative insights in three primary areas: 1) how personal and family circumstances can lead to, and can be used to justify, becoming a very serious birder; 2) how an overriding passion for world birding helped a lady live a highly productive 19-years beyond a cancer doctor’s “death sentence” (“Phoebe, you have just one year to live”); and, 3) what the many pros and cons are when a passion turns to an obsession, and vicariously, what a world birder might consider doing to prevent family and personal problems while birding across the planet at an extreme pace.
Although I never had the privilege of meeting Phoebe Snetsinger, after reading this biography I have a variety of personal reasons to feel a kinship with her. She was originally captivated by one of my favorite Neotropical Migrants – a male Blackburnian Warbler (a Fire Throat to many North American birders) – and this initial spark took place in Minnesota, one state north of my native Iowa; also Phoebe’s birding epiphany took place in 1965, just one year prior to my own. Phoebe’s real growth as a birder then took place in Missouri, just one state south of my home state. But probably the biggest surprise and most heartwarming factoid I uncovered in this book was that the Rufous-necked Wood-Rail that I saw on the riverbank outside of San Blas, Mexico with some of my best birding friends on March 4, 2001, may actually have been the same individual bird that Phoebe saw for her record 8,000th world species on Sept. 26, 1995. But these are only tiny connections compared to how seriously and how well this psychological portrait and adventure story resonated with me. Both subtle and not-so-subtle lessons are to be learned here – including many things to emulate and several to avoid. Aspiring birders will surely learn much from the birding experiences of Phoebe Snetsinger.
Personal characteristics and noteworthy aspects of Phoebe’s life are well worth understanding and contemplating, and these are simply listed here due to space limitations. These would include: an incredible ability to prepare for a birding adventure; a dazzling memory which led to contributing significantly to Sibley and Monroe’s world bird classification book, and also led to beginning her own taxonomy of birds of the world; a system of note-taking and record-keeping that must have been second to none; charging ahead – despite being given one year to live – to become the first person (of either gender) to see 8,000 species; an explanation of favorite and not so favorite bird tour companies and individual bird guides, and why (names are used!); and of course, the tragic accident (but painless death) that ended this extraordinary life of birding adventure.
Mostly this biography explores and elucidates exactly what it is that makes a person tick. And the word “tick” comes into play here in two distinct ways. The easy part relates to keeping a list of all birds found and identified. But this biography goes much further. It probes deeply into personality, family history, and the psychology of goal setting, total dedication, and perseverance. And it effectively presents the internal motivations that can drive an individual to strive to such an extreme degree as to become oblivious of the effects on herself, and a detriment to her relationship to her husband and her four children. Those who currently are, or who would like to become a world birder, will gain scores of relevant insights into this remarkable passion.
Buy Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds on Amazon.com
Buy Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds on Amazon.co.uk