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Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds
A new biography chronicles the passionate exploits of one of the world’s most driven female birders.

The following is from the introduction to Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds, by Olivia Gentile (Bloomsbury USA, 362 pages, $26). Reproduced with permission by Bloomsbury USA.

When I was 23, I fell in love with a birdwatcher. I’d just finished college and was living in rural Vermont, not because I loved mountains and open space, but because I’d gotten a job as a reporter at a small-town newspaper. I was skeptical, in fact, about mountains and open space. Most of my friends had moved to New York City when we graduated, and I would have, too, if a newspaper there had hired me. Instead of writing about the election between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole and the emergence of capitalist China, the sort of work I’d fantasized about when I decided to be a journalist, I was writing about the new ice cream cart that had set up shop in the town of Springfield and the county prosecutor who’d been arrested for drunk driving.

I met Tait through a friend at the paper. He had big blue eyes, lots of curly blond hair, and a gentle, almost angelic way about him. He was a few years older than I was, and when I asked him what he’d been doing since college, he said he’d mostly been studying birds, as a field assistant for various research projects: one summer, he lived in a tent on top of a mountain in Vermont, in a spruce forest, and observed the behavior of the rare and reclusive Bicknell’s Thrush; not long after that, he was sent to Panama, where he tried to figure out whether the Slate-throated Redstart could nest in the sparse trees on shaded coffee plantations.

When he wasn’t working, he watched birds for fun, in the ponds, swamps, and woods near his house. By “watched birds,” I don’t mean that he sat around, like you do when you watch TV. Birdwatching, the way most people do it, is a lot like hunting, which is why some practitioners prefer the more active-sounding term “birding”: you have to know where and when to look for birds, you have to chase them down, and when you find them, you have to figure out what species they are—often in just a second or two, before they fly away. Tait, like most birders, kept a “life list” of all the species he’d seen and identified, and he was always looking to add new ones, or “life birds.”

He told me he’d gotten interested in birds when he was about ten and his mother set up a birdfeeder outside their kitchen window. At the time, she was home-schooling him, and she encouraged him to take an inventory of all the birds and other animals in their town. One of the first natural history books ever published was White’s Selborne, a catalog of the animal life in an English township by the local pastor, Gilbert White; as an homage, little Tait called his opus, which was written in pencil on lined paper, “Tait’s Bartonsville.” A few years later, he got a scholarship to attend a boarding school in upstate New York, where he was shy with his peers but was encouraged by his teachers to walk in the woods and fields and look for birds.

I’d never given birds a moment of my attention. But when I looked through Tait’s binoculars, I saw their subtle loveliness: the lemon yellow of a warbler’s breast; the slow wing-beat of a hawk in flight; the curl of a heron’s long, slender neck. Through Tait, I learned to hear birds, also—hoots and chuckles, trills and caws—and it dawned on me that they were everywhere, even in winter, when the world looked barren. I learned, too, that birds evolved from a small two-legged dinosaur called a theropod, which grew feathers, probably to keep warm, and which, eventually, used those feathers to take to the air. There’s no need for fantasies like Jurassic Park: every time you see a bird, even a crummy little sparrow, you’re looking at what’s left of the dinosaurs.

I was so taken with Tait and his passion for the natural world that it took me a while to recognize his depression. It slowed him down almost every day, and when it was bad, it paralyzed him. He’d forget things, pace, sleep too much, and cry. He’d been on and off medication for a while, he told me, but it never seemed to do much good.

All the same, every morning just before dawn, even when he was at his worst, he woke up to listen to the birdsong. He’d lie on his back in the purple-gray dark, eyes open and alert, and sift through the chorus to identify each species. If I was awake, he whispered the names of the birds so I, too, could appreciate the music. His connection to nature was so powerful, I realized, that it penetrated his depression better than medicine could, better than I could. I wondered if he would be alive without it.

We eventually broke up, which was crushing to both of us. Years later, when I moved to New York City to study writing, he was still on my mind. Most people barely notice birds, even in bucolic Vermont. Why had they come into focus for Tait? Had he already been depressed when they did? Why, exactly, did they soothe him so? The other birdwatchers I’d met through Tait seemed to approach the pursuit with similar ardor. Did they need salvation, too?

I decided to write some sort of essay on birdwatching, and I called a few bird clubs near my home in Manhattan to see what they had going on. One man misunderstood and thought I was interested in joining his club. He tried to encourage me. “Who knows?” he said. “Maybe you’ll be the next Phoebe Snetsinger.” The man had never met Phoebe, but he knew all about her (as most birdwatchers do, it turned out) and he told me a little. That was back in 2001, two years after her death, and I’ve been piecing together her life ever since.

Phoebe wasn’t meant to be a housewife. Her father was Leo Burnett, founder of one of the biggest advertising agencies in the country (the Leo Burnett Company, in Chicago), and she inherited his intensity and drive. As a little girl in the 1930s, she was a tomboy who zealously memorized baseball statistics; when she was a teenager, in the 1940s, she wanted to be a psychologist, then changed her mind and decided to be a chemist. By the time she graduated from college, though, it was the era of Ozzie and Harriet. Earlier in the century, women had broken down all kinds of barriers, but in the postwar years there was a backlash: women were once again supposed to marry young, have as many kids as possible, and devote themselves entirely to their families. A few women tried to flout the norm and take up careers instead, but most didn’t make it very far.

Phoebe, who was shy and unused to making waves, married a few days after she graduated, became a housewife in the Minneapolis suburbs, and had four children in quick succession with her husband, David, a scientist who taught at the University of Minnesota. She was a thoughtful, loving mother, but she couldn’t muster much gusto for cooking and cleaning, and by her early thirties she was, as she later wrote, “starving for some kind of outlet that didn’t revolve around raising a family.” (She had company. She was 32 in 1963, when Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique.) She tried being a Sunday School teacher and a Girl Scout leader, but didn’t take to either. Then, one sunny spring morning when she was 34, when only one of her kids had started school and the youngest two were still in diapers, a neighbor took her out birdwatching. As she beheld the blazing orange throat of a Blackburnian Warbler that was perched in the top of a tree, she had an epiphany akin to a religious awakening. “I had never seen anything like it,” she wrote, “and at the same time, I realized that the bird had probably been in the trees in my own backyard every spring I’d been alive. It was as if a window opened up.” She began birding with her neighbor once or twice a week, mostly in the woods around their houses, and keeping a life list, which, at first, grew slowly, since it takes a while to learn how to “spot” birds in trees and shrubs, not to mention how to tell one kind from another. A couple of years later, when the family moved to a suburb of St. Louis for Dave’s work, she found a bird club to join, made more friends than she’d ever had before, and started to sharpen her skills.

Once she’d mastered most of the birds near home, though, she wanted to travel around the country and the world to see more; most of all, she wanted to spend time in the tropics, where the vast majority of the 10,000 bird species live. It was, people were saying, the Golden Age of birding: it was easier than it had ever been to get around in the tropics, and, though a great deal of rainforest and other bird habitat had recently been destroyed, there hadn’t yet been many extinctions. Throughout her forties, when her kids were in their teens, Phoebe wrote poems about feeling trapped, out of place, and depressed in the suburbs, and about wanting to flee to the jungle, where she belonged.

In 1981, when she was just a few months shy of her fiftieth birthday, she was, to her shock and devastation, diagnosed with advanced melanoma and told she had less than a year to live. Since no good treatments existed, she decided to spend her final months chasing birds wherever she could, a plan that both Dave and the kids supported. She went with “bird tours” (which were, at the time, a new phenomenon) to Alaska, Australia, Suriname, and India, always thinking each trip would be her last. As it happened, though, her doctors had been wrong, and a year after her diagnosis, her body was robust, her spirit was exuberant, and she was starting to wonder how many species she could find before she was forced to stop. “I know the balloon will burst some day in the next few years,” she wrote to a friend, “but meanwhile life is so good.

In the years that followed, Phoebe crisscrossed the globe with ever-deepening abandon, staking out rare and spectacular birds in the wildest reaches of the earth. She still took tours, but she chose increasingly fringe ones, and as time went on she took more trips on her own, hiring local guides to show her around. She slept in yurts, at truck stops, and by the side of the road; she traveled in tiny planes, in canoes, and on horseback. Once, she was chased by tribesmen with 10-foot-long spears; another time, she was boat-wrecked in the middle of the ocean. On the island of New Guinea, she was car-jacked, kidnapped, and brutally assaulted by five thugs. Ten years after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, Phoebe had become obsessed with the notion of seeing 8,000 species, more than any birder in history. She had also lost the capacity to take into account her family, her health, and her safety.   *

Phoebe liked to write things down, and I’ve been able to reconstruct her life largely by following her paper trail. In addition to the poetry she wrote in her forties, I read letters she wrote to friends and family; notes she wrote to herself during good times and bad; and the notebooks she kept on her trips, which were meticulous and often quite personal. I read articles she wrote for the newsletter of her bird club and for magazines, and the many articles that were written about her. When she was 65, she started working on a memoir, which was almost complete when she died.

I interviewed Phoebe’s family: her two brothers; Dave, her widower, who still lives outside St. Louis; and her four children, now in their forties and fifties, all of whom have careers in the natural sciences. The Snetsingers are private, dignified people, but they shared with me what they were comfortable with (and, generously, allowed me to read and quote from Phoebe’s papers). I interviewed dozens of her friends, most of them birders, and I found that a lot of them had stories worth telling, too. I did a lot of birdwatching myself, both in New York and in some of the places that were important to Phoebe, including Kenya and Peru, two countries in the tropics that are particularly rich with birds.

This book is about Phoebe, and about birding, a way of life I wanted to better understand. But it’s also about the broad and fundamental questions Phoebe’s life raises. What happens when society pushes you into a role you aren’t meant to play? If you’re told you only have a short time to live, how should you spend it? Where is the line between dedication and obsession, and when does obsession cross the line into pathology?

What does it mean, ultimately, to live, and die, well?

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