clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Phoebe Snetsinger lived a life that proves middle-aged bird-watchers can be action heroes

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

When Phoebe Snetsinger was diagnosed with melanoma in 1981 and given less than a year to live, she knew how she wanted to spend it: seeking out birds. Snetsinger, honored in today's Google Doodle, exceeded expectations.

She lived 18 more years. She didn't die of cancer. And by the time Snetsinger, who would have been 85 today, died in 1999, she'd seen about 85 percent of all of the bird species in the world. She called her autobiography Birding on Borrowed Time.

Bird-watching — or birding, as its practitioners prefer — might seem like a relaxing pastime for a dying woman. For Snetsinger, it became an obsession and a competitive sport. She traveled the world. She was kidnapped and assaulted. She caught malaria. She broke her bones. And in the end, it wasn't the cancer that killed her — it was her endless quest for birds.

There are about 10,000 species of birds in the world, and Snetsinger saw 8,400 of them

Chasing birds all over the world takes money, and Snetsinger had it: She was the daughter of Leo Burnett, who founded a legendary advertising agency that created the Pillsbury Doughboy, the Jolly Green Giant, and the Marlboro Man.

Snetsinger had dreamed of being a scientist, as journalist Olivia Gentile recounted in her Snetsinger biography, Life List. But because this was the 1950s, she married one instead: David Snetsinger, who worked as a scientist and administrator for Purina. Unhappy as a suburban housewife, occasionally writing dark poems, Phoebe took up birding as a hobby in the 1960s.

She became notable quickly. By the 1970s, she held the record for having seen the most local bird species. But after her melanoma diagnosis, birding went from a hobby to an obsession. Snetsinger became part of a category of extreme birders who don't just want to observe birds in the wild — they want to see every kind of bird there is, particularly the rare ones, no matter how far they have to go.

These birders are known as "big listers," after the "life list" of species of birds seen that many birders keep. (The 2011 comedy The Big Year focused on big listers, and although it wasn't critically praised, birders liked it.) The most successful have racked up thousands of sightings. Last year, birder Noah Strycker saw 6,042 species in a single year, a quest that took him to 41 countries.

Extreme birding is a dangerous and fascinating pursuit

The red-shouldered vanga, the last bird Snetsinger saw.

Birding came into its own as a hobby shaped by Victorian women, many of them feminists, Jaya Saxena wrote at Atlas Obscura last year.

But most of the big listers are men. Nearly every name on Wikipedia's list of well-known bird-watchers, and particularly those with thousands of species to their credit, is male. Snetsinger is the exception.

Traveling the world to look for birds is expensive and time-consuming. It can also be dangerous. A devoted birder can see a few thousand birds just by traveling a lot, but seeing at least 8,000 birds requires another level of dedication.

David Shackelford has seen more birds than all but 17 people in the world. "He’s wrestled an anaconda in the Amazon, been caught in the middle of a gunfight in Madagascar and seen tigers from the back of an elephant in India," Russell Roe wrote for Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine in 2013. And Shackelford is still just behind Snetsinger on the global rankings at

Snetsinger, during her travels, broke her knee and wrist (and continued a birding trip with a broken, unset wrist) and survived a boat wreck. She was raped by five machete-wielding men who kidnapped her in Papua New Guinea — then returned to the country the next year. As the horrible events were unfolding, she told her friend Joel Greenberg, she was grateful that she'd seen a rare bird:

As the men drove off, Phoebe told me that what went through her mind during that terrifying ride was that whatever happened, she had seen the Kagu. She was so thankful that she had sent post cards to family attesting to that fact.

In the end, although Snetsinger's melanoma came back during her global travels, cancer didn't kill her. She died in a bus crash in Madagascar while on a birding trip. While on the trip, she saw one final bird: the red-shouldered vanga.

Snetsinger's chase for birds was obsessive. She missed her mother's funeral and her daughter's wedding while on birding trips. No matter the tragedy, personal or political, her reaction was always about the birds: She noted that she visited Rwanda in the "nick of time" before the genocide, and her first question about friends kidnapped in Colombia was what birds they had seen, as a review of Gentile's book notes.

But being the best in the world nearly always requires obsession. Few would blink at a male athlete or CEO who missed family events in the pursuit of excellence. And when Snetsinger died, she was the best in the world at her chosen pursuit.

"To do something as spectacular as Phoebe did … you have to put aside many aspects of life that the rest of us value highly," Greenberg wrote:

This would go for most of those driven souls who, say, build corporations (like her father) or attain high political office. These folks are not like most people, but if the rewards they garner are financial, they are apt to be celebrated. It is harder to honor those who reap rewards of another realm.

Watch: Pigeons are gross. They're also wildly underrated.