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

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

Olivia Gentile

Language: English

Pages: 345

ISBN: 1596911697

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

A frustrated housewife sets out to see more bird species than anyone in history—and ends up risking her life again and again in the wildest places on earth.

Phoebe Snetsinger had planned to be a scientist, but, like most women who got married in the 1950s, she ended up keeping house, with four kids and a home in the suburbs by her mid-thirties. Numb and isolated, she turned to bird-watching, but she soon tired of the birds near home and yearned to travel the world. Then her life took a crushing turn: At forty-nine, she was diagnosed with cancer and told that she had less than a year to live. Devastated, she began crisscrossing the globe, finding rare and spectacular birds that brought her to the heights of spiritual ecstasy. But as it turned out, she beat the cancer. She eventually went to more than a hundred countries, had frequent brushes with danger, became a hero in the birding world, and set a record for the most species seen. Life List is a powerful portrait of a woman who found refuge from society’s expectations in a dangerous and soul-stirring obsession.

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just to get enough sleep to keep from being totally frazzled! . . . Lots of one-night stands, and no let-up at all for 3 straight weeks on the long days.” One day, they rode horses for ten hours in the rain on “a steep, very rocky, and incredibly difficult trail,” she told her friend. “Walking it would have been impossible for me, and it was nearly that on horseback!” The purpose of the ride was to find a single bird, the Rufous-fronted Parakeet, but in the bad weather, it eluded them. “So it was

even though she hadn’t participated in the rankings for several years. It was a tribute that took some time to put together. Since the ABA still recognized just 9,700 species, Tom had to go through Phoebe’s notes, species by species, and figure out what her count would have been had she still been using the organization’s taxonomy. He came up with 8,398 species, which turned out to be about five hundred ahead of anyone else that year, despite the fact that many people were counting “heard birds.”

illustrations. Tait Johansson and his sister, Ailyn Hoey, with fond memories of our years in Vermont. The Long Island Bird Club, which pointed me in Phoebe’s direction. Jim, Judy, and Doug Miller, who harbored me in St. Louis and even helped me with research; Alys Fair, my long-lost great-aunt and host in Phoenix; Amanda Rocque and Bryon Farnsworth, my hosts in Denver; Carrie Budoff Brown, my host in Philadelphia; and Andrea Monroe, who put me up in Chicago. The participants in the two Field

vacations, the whole family spent time there, and everybody found something to do—except Penny, who was in high school, had a full social life, and still disliked the outdoors (and who, incidentally, had turned out to be a top student, like her mother). Phoebe took bird walks, which Tom sometimes accompanied her on, and she and Dave planted trees, flowers, and vegetables together, as they had a decade earlier in Minnesota. Dave also built fences, fixed up the buildings, kept the lawn mowed, and

beginning.” She’d been lucky to see the birds she’d seen, and lucky to get out alive. In the late 1980s, Ted Parker, the legendary researcher and tour guide, had gotten more and more worried about habitat destruction in Latin America, and in 1989, at age thirty-six, he’d quit his jobs with Louisiana State University and Victor Emanuel Nature Tours to found a new initiative at Conservation International that he named the “Rapid Assessment Program.” The idea was to take fast but accurate

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