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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

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

“Increasingly, she seemed to depend on that rush she got from seeing new birds.  She was probably also becoming dependent on the recognition she got for being one of the top listers, and for playing the game how it was meant to be played.”

Whenever I visit a new zoo for the first time, I often make a beeline for the birds.  That’s not because I’m not super-interested in mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.  It’s because bird collections – even at relatively small zoos, such as Brandywine and Cape May – usually offer me my best chance of seeing a species that I’ve never encountered before.  Part of it is that there is an enormous world of private breeders for bird curators to obtain unusual specimens from (such as Sylvan Heights).  The other is the simple fact that there are a lot of birds out there.  Over 10,000 species (depending on who you ask), which is more than double the number of mammal species in the world.

I compile a photo record of all of the species I’ve seen in captive collections, and right now the bird count is hovering at about 550.  While I keep my zoo-bird-list, however, thousands of people around the world are engaged in a different hobby – observing birds in the wild, traditionally called “birdwatching”, now usually referred to in the more active form as “birding.”  The great thing about birding is that you can do it anywhere, for the simple reason that there are birds just about anywhere.  You can sit in your backyard or a city park with binoculars and a field guide and pick out migrating warblers.  On the other extreme, you can launch expeditions to the farthest-flung corners of the world in search of species so elusive that they might not even still be around.

For many years, the unofficial queen of the world’s birders was Phoebe Snetsinger.  Her story, told in Olivia Gentile’s Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds, is a tale of perseverance and triumph over extreme adversity, while at the same time a case study of perhaps unhealthy obsession.

Phoebe was perhaps born in the wrong decade; extremely intelligent, ambitious, and observant, she felt trapped in the world of housekeeping and child-rearing, her college degree hanging uselessly on the wall.  The one outlet that she did find to keep herself from going stir-crazy was birdwatching – first in her small town, then in trips around the country, either on family vacations or accompanying her husband on business trips.  When a cancer diagnosis leaves her with an estimated life-expectancy of one year, she decides to make the most of it and go birding abroad while she still can.  When the cancer slips into remission, she continues to bird – with a single-mindedness that inspires and terrifies her friends and comes to alienate her family.

Life List is the story of Phoebe’s expeditions, from New Caledonia, in search of the mysterious kagu, to the rebel-held jungles of Colombia, to the high plateaus of the Himalayas.  Along the way, she suffers injuries and near-fatal (non-cancerous) illnesses, is taken prisoner by Ethiopian tribesmen, and almost drowns in a boating accident.  She faces a savage assault in Papua New Guinea, one which led her family to beg her to stay home.  She missed weddings and funerals of her family.  Still, on she birded, eventually becoming the first person in the world to see over 8,000 species of bird in the wild.  Some of the species that she sought out had only been described by science a year or two before.

Phoebe Snetsinger’s round-the-world bird trips weren’t just about her – preserving her sanity (possibly her health) by taking her mind off of her illness.  The knowledge that she obtained in her incredibly detailed notebooks greatly expanded ornithology’s understanding of the distribution, behavior, and variation of the world’s birds.  In another life – one in which her passions had been nurtured, rather than tolerated, at an early age – she might have become the world’s foremost ornithologist.  At any rate, she had the satisfaction of traveling to dozens of countries and encountering worlds (and birds) that few people could ever dream of.   She obtained the recognition for her intelligence and determination that she’d always dreamed of.

Life List isn’t just a description of what she gained however, but also of what was lost. Even as someone who loves to observe animals in the wild – I keep a life list myself -  I have a hard time reading Ms. Gentile’s biography of Phoebe Snetsinger with too much envy. 

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