The Endless Race

A new biography explores the remarkable accomplishments of Phoebe Snetsinger, the first birder to list 8,000 species. 

Life begins at 50—under a sentence of death.

This is the thread, and the message, of one of those curious life histories that cry out for a biographer. Phoebe Snetsinger might have been simply a Jane Doe, an unremarkable matron conforming to all post-World War II proprieties in Midwestern suburbs, performing without much enthusiasm the housewifely chores expected of her in providing the creature comforts for an earnest husband and four bright children. But inwardly, Snetsinger was consumed by boredom, frustration, and gloomy musings, which she expressed only in secret fits of poetry writing. Then, suddenly, jolted by a horrific revelation, she broke free to find hair-raising adventure and an odd notoriety through the manic pursuit of exotic birds.

Shortly before her 50th birthday, in 1981, Snetsinger learned she had a “fatal” melanoma. Given only a year to live, she confronted the ultimate question: If the experts say you have only a short time left, how should you occupy those precious months? Not especially religious, Snetsinger opted against a course of good works and ran to daylight. She embarked to earth’s remote places on almost continuous journeys that were arduous and often hazardous but gilded with long-dreamt-of birds. Her violent death 18 years later contrasted ironically with her good fortune in surviving so long. “Birding has meant a variety of things to many different people,” Snetsinger once wrote in an article for a nature club, “but for me it has been intricately intertwined with survival.”

Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds, by Olivia Gentile, gives Snetsinger a full and competently written biography. It starts slowly, as more than 70 percent of her subject’s lifespan offered the author few highlights to spice her story. But persevere, dear reader—the best parts are coming up. One early plum is the appearance of Snetsinger’s father. Leo Burnett was a legend in the advertising business, a poor boy who built a Chicago-based agency that gave the world such household names as the Marlboro Man, the Maytag Repairman, and the Pillsbury Doughboy. Burnett was single-minded, intent on details, and obsessive in competition with others. Phoebe turned out to be her father’s daughter.

In marriage, Snetsinger found herself locked into a role she didn’t want to play. She and her husband, a scientist and administrator with Purina, drifted apart but didn’t divorce. Though she went through the motions with her children, they were never neglected—at least not in a material sense. She began to write dark, despairing poems; later she described her marriage as “a stodgy, graceless, larval time.”

When Snetsinger was 34, a friend in a Minneapolis suburb introduced her to watching birds. Gifted with a photographic memory and a fierce will to learn, she was very good at it. What began as an occasional visit to a local park soon became a consuming pastime. The means, though not the will, to free herself from a wife’s responsibilities appeared with her father’s death and a considerable inheritance, and she signed up for frequent birding tours both in this country and abroad. The diagnosis of terminal cancer finally sprung Snetsinger from what she felt had become her trap.

Gentile is at her best describing the obsessive turn her subject’s life now took. At first Snetsinger’s travels seemed to reflect her compulsion to pack as much excitement as possible into the time she had left. Her mother saw her as “a bird afraid of being caged.” But as no signs of the illness recurred, she acquired a sense of invincibility. Snetsinger spent about four months of each year traveling, and passed the intervals studying photographs and museum specimens of the birds she hoped to see on her next tour. She grew aware that she was engaged in an endless race against other birders to see more and more species, in fact to see more birds than anyone else who had ever listed. And like Danica Patrick in auto racing and Judit Polgar in chess, she established herself as a leading competitor in a game traditionally dominated by men.

“People would get excited when they found out they’d be on a tour with her, and were honored when she took time out to help them in the field,” Gentile writes. “Even catching a glimpse of her was thrilling, as if she were a rock star.”

By 1995 Snetsinger had become the first person to list 8,000 birds, but new species were now harder to find and each trip took its toll. She passed up her mother’s funeral and a daughter’s wedding so as not to miss a chance to see new birds. A knee injury hobbled her on slippery mountain trails, and a shattered wrist sustained in a fall left her with a permanently crippled arm. Snetsinger underwent surgery for a new melanoma scare. At an isolated lagoon in Papua New Guinea her guide was beaten and she was gang-raped by five thugs. But she pressed on and a year later even returned to the scene of the attack.

Eventually, Snetsinger listed (by a revised count) 8,398 of the world’s 9,700 species, a record since broken only a couple of times. The end of her quest came in Madagascar in November 1999, when the van she was riding in rolled over and crashed. Death on tour was a fate she had previously envisioned in letters to family and friends—a death, she might have said, she could live with.

Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds, by Olivia Gentile, Bloomsbury USA, 362 pages, $15.62. Buy it at Bloomsbury.