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

3.9 10
by Olivia Gentile

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"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 birdwatching, 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,…  See more details below


"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 birdwatching, 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 told she had cancer and 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 against all odds, she didn't get sick. She eventually took hundreds of trips to all seven continents, often risking her life in remote, rugged places. She became a hero in the birding world and the first person to see eight thousand species - disregarding the cost to her family, her health, and her safety.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
★ 09/01/2013
Phoebe Snetsinger (1931–99) was obsessed with becoming the person to see and identify the most bird species. Given only months to live, she survived to spend years on her quest and succeeded, seeing 8,000 types, which is more than anyone else.
Publishers Weekly

In this biography of bird enthusiast Phoebe Snetsinger, former journalist Gentile wonders whether there is a "line between dedication and obsession, and when does obsession cross the line into pathology?" Married, with four children, Phoebe was a frustrated 1950s housewife who began experiencing a depression that "felt like she was inside a tomb." Her introduction to bird-watching by "another shy, brainy housewife," seeing a warbler through binoculars, was a revelation; it was as if she'd seen a "blinding white light." With the help of a local birding club, Phoebe began her "life list" of birds and gradually began traveling farther afield in search of new sightings. Diagnosed in her late 40s with incurable cancer and less than a year to live, she threw herself into birding, traveling worldwide, ignoring injury and danger to work on her life list for another 18 years, until killed in a bus accident in Madagascar at the age of 68. Gentile's ambivalence, celebrating Snetsinger's "having lived so fully and with so much spirit" but noting that "she had lost the capacity to take into account her family, her health and her safety," adds a reflectiveness that Phoebe herself may have avoided in life. (Apr.)

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Kirkus Reviews
Lively biography of intrepid, world-traveling ornithologist and cancer survivor Phoebe Snetsinger..In her first book, journalist Gentile lovingly reanimates Snetsinger's life (1931–99) using the renowned bird watcher's memoir (Birding on Borrowed Time, 2003), letters, notebooks, poetry and newsletter articles, as well as interviews with friends and family. The plucky, tomboyish daughter of advertising entrepreneur Leo Burnett, Snetsinger married a high-school friend who became an agriculture professor. By 1965, she was a bored housewife raising four children in rural Minneapolis. When a neighbor excitedly pointed out a Blackburnian Warbler, she became hooked on bird watching. Snetsinger began creating her own "life list," an inventory of all species seen and identified. She joined local birding groups, which kindled her protective love of nature. Upon her father's death in 1971, she inherited a large amount of money; it fortified her family and allowed Snetsinger to invest in farmland and travel worldwide to pursue her passion. As her children grew older, and she and her husband grew apart, she spent more time on journeys to such bird-rich locations as Mexico, Indonesia, Ecuador and Trinidad. Following a trip to Panama in 1981, Snetsinger, barely 50, received a crushing diagnosis of terminal melanoma. Believing that she had less than a year to live only accelerated her globetrotting pursuit of as-yet-unseen bird species and her obsession with expanding her unrivaled life list. Gentile details Snetsinger's increasing recklessness as she experienced years of miraculous remissions from cancer. Her hunt took on "a compulsive, even desperate, tinge" that sacrificed personal health and safetyright up to her 1999 death in a driving accident while birding in Madagascar. The book's chronology is a bit choppy, but the prose delightfully conveys Gentile's engagement with her subject..Compassionate and comprehensive..Agent: Simon Lipskar/Writers House.
From the Publisher

“A phenomenal tale--beautifully told--of escape, risk, and obsession. Judicious [and] insightful.” —Patricia O'Toole, author of When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House

“Except for one thing, this book would rate as a great adventure novel and fictional psychological portrait, about a woman's obsession with bird-watching, its effect on her relationships with her husband and her four children, and the horrifying mishaps that she survived on each continent--until the last mishap. But the book isn't that great novel, because instead it's a great true story: the biography of Phoebe Snetsinger, who set the world record for bird species seen, after growing up in an era when American women weren't supposed to be competitive or have careers. Whether or not you pretend that it's a novel, you'll enjoy this powerful, moving story.” —Jared Diamond, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse

“An intriguing portrait of one of the best-known birders of the modern age. I couldn't put it down!” —Peter Kaestner, America's top (living) bird lister

Life List is an engaging saga of how a brave and complex woman defied cancer and gender in an epic quest to become the first person to see 8,000 bird species.” —Frank Gill, author Ornithology

“I am not a woman. I am not a birdwatcher, and don't plan to become one. But I nevertheless found Life List to be a charming, heartening, fascinating, and altogether inspiring guide to living life (and facing death) with one's full attention.” —Kurt Andersen, author of Heyday

Life List will easily attract bird-people and the rest of us with its distinctive call. Olivia Gentile has written a graceful and very appealing book.” —Meg Wolitzer, author of The Ten-Year Nap and Sleepwalking

“Gentile's tale of a desperate but determined housewife with a passion for birds and adventure is engrossing, sharp, and affecting--a touching portrait and great read.” —Susan Orlean, author The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup and The Orchid Thief

Life List is an uncommon sort of book--a sincere, sometimes sombre flight through the remarkable, storied life of one of birding's most tenacious and most erudite adherents. Olivia Gentile approaches her subject with equal parts sympathy and sobriety, capturing both the exhilaration and the costs of pursuing one's passion to the fullest.” —Edward S. Brinkley, editor of North American Birds Journal

“Olivia Gentile's Life List is the remarkable story of Phoebe Snetsinger, a woman trapped by her life as homemaker, who found liberation in bird watching. Diagnosed with terminal cancer, she began traveling the world, not seeking a cure, but in search of rare birds--becoming a kind of ornithologist's heroine, and living another eighteen years. Gentile's journalistic temperament lures you in, whether you like birds or not (frankly I kind of hate them). The result is a beautifully revealing, sensitive exploration of Snetsinger's singular obsession. The story slips under your skin--you can't help but keep reading.” —A.M. Homes

“Phoebe Snetsinger lived a life of high adventure and exotic travel familiar to 19th century explorers - except that she was a 1960s Midwestern housewife who was supposed to be dying of cancer. How she became the world's most driven, globe-trotting birder, what she gained and what she sacrificed to see three-quarters of the Earth's birds, makes Life List an unusually compelling story.” —Scott Weidensaul, author of Of a Feather

author of When Trumpets Call: Theodore Rooseve Patricia O'Toole
A phenomenal tale—beautifully told—of escape, risk, and obsession. Judicious [and] insightful.
author The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup and The O Susan Orlean
Gentile's tale of a desperate but determined housewife with a passion for birds and adventure is engrossing, sharp, and affecting—a touching portrait and great read.

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Product Details

Bloomsbury USA
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.50(d)

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A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing, Birds
By Olivia Gentile


Copyright © 2009 Olivia Gentile
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59691-169-7

Chapter One

It had been a long, nasty winter, even by Minnesota standards. At first, it was numbingly cold. "Keep Your Overcoat Buttoned Up," the Minneapolis Morning Tribune warned, with mid-western understatement, in mid-January, when the temperature was five below zero. Over the next few weeks, it often got down to twenty-five below. "Another battery-destroying, toe-freezing, window-frosting day of cold, cold weather is predicted for the Twin Cities today," the paper said in early February. In March, there were three blizzards, each ten days after the last, each with winds so fierce that you couldn't see. At one point, the wind was so strong that it kicked up the soil, which mixed with the snow and turned it black. Roads, schools, and stores were closed; telephone and power lines went dead; kids jumped from their roofs into thirty-foot-high snowdrifts. "Winter May Be City's Worst in 43 Years," the Tribune declared.

It was 1965. Phoebe was thirty-four, and she lived with Dave and their four little kids outside Minneapolis, in New Brighton, an industrial town that was turning into a suburb. Penny was six; Tom was four; Carol was three; Sue was one. Dave, who had grown up on a farm, was a professor of agriculture on the St.Paul campus of the University of Minnesota. His specialty was the relatively new field of poultry nutrition: he tried to figure out what to feed laying hens and chicks so the chicks would grow quickly and make for healthful, tasty meat. He taught, performed experiments, wrote papers, and sat on committees. Phoebe stayed home with the kids, which meant, of course, that she got to see their first steps and hear their first words, but also that she spent much of her time running after them, changing their diapers, and cleaning the house. When she could get out, she did some volunteering for the League of Women Voters (she was a Democrat with misgivings about the Vietnam War) and the Girl Scouts (for a while, she was a troop leader). She and Dave taught Sunday school at the local Unitarian church, not because they were particularly religious but to give their kids a sense of community.

Although Phoebe's parents gave them a little money each year, they lived primarily off Dave's salary as an associate professor, and so they'd bought a small, one-story house with a single bathroom, the sort of house where you don't get much privacy no matter which room you're in. There were only three bedrooms, Sue's nursery was a refurbished bathroom, and the living room was barely big enough to fit all six of them. The house was in a big field, though, near a lake and some woods, and they spent a lot of their time outdoors. Together, Phoebe and Dave planted pear trees and raspberry bushes and grew cucumbers and sweet corn. The kids had a tire swing and a sandbox, played in the woods, and wrapped themselves in cucumber vines to pretend they were ancient Romans. In the summer, the whole family swam in the lake together; in the winter, they used it as a skating rink. After a big snow, Dave would load the kids in a sled and drag them, pink-faced and smiling, around the property with his tractor.

In the winter of 1965, however, Dave was away on sabbatical. He'd gotten a fellowship to visit Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, one of the places where the nuclear bomb had been developed, to learn to incorporate radiation into his research. He was mixing radioactive markers into chicken feed so they'd bind to the calcium, iron, and other nutrients in the feed. When he x-rayed a bird that had been given this feed, the markers showed where the nutrients were, which helped him figure out if they were getting absorbed.

Phoebe stayed behind with the kids, only one of whom-Penny-had started school and two of whom-Carol and Sue-were still in diapers. I don't know a lot of details about how she managed, but it couldn't have been easy. With Dave gone, she didn't get to take many breaks. Since the weather was so bad, she couldn't even go outside on some days, which meant that she saw no other adults. The little house would have been loud with children's cries. By springtime, she wrote in her memoir many years later, she was "starving" to do something that didn't involve kids. She "badly needed some mental and physical diversion," she wrote elsewhere. Once, when a reporter asked her about this time in her life, she said that her kids had been making her "kind of crazy."

She had probably started feeling frustrated well before that winter, even if it took the winter to bring things into focus. In high school, she'd gotten all A's and planned to be a psychologist. She'd gone to one of the best colleges in the country, Swarthmore, in Pennsylvania, where she got almost all A's and was chosen for Phi Beta Kappa, the national honor society. Early in college, she decided to be a chemist and loaded her schedule with advanced math and science classes. But, like many women who went to college in the 1950s, she got engaged when she was a senior-she had her "ring by spring," as the saying went-and put aside her plans for a career. She taught for a while before she and Dave had kids, but since 1958, when Penny was born, she'd been a housewife.

Phoebe was shy and didn't make friends easily, but she had one good friend in New Brighton, another shy, brainy housewife named Elisabeth Selden, who lived nearby with her husband and four children. The Selden kids were older than the Snetsinger kids, so Elisabeth had more freedom. She devoted a lot of her time to the civil rights movement, the Senate campaigns of Hubert Humphrey, and other liberal causes, and she opened her house to foreign exchange students at the University of Minnesota. In the spring and summer, when it was nice out, she watched birds.

One sunny morning in May 1965, after the snow had finally melted, Elisabeth had Phoebe over to her yard. According to Phoebe's memoir, Elisabeth gave her some binoculars, pointed to a branch in an oak tree, and told her to look. What she saw "nearly knocked me over with astonishment": a black-and-white bird, no bigger than a child's hand, with a yellow head, shiny black eyes, and a throat the color of a ripe mango. "I thought, 'My god, that is absolutely beautiful.'" The bird, Elisabeth said, was a Blackburnian Warbler, and it had come north from South America to breed. She must have told Phoebe that dozens of species of warbler-all little and bright, with voices like flutes-came north every spring. "Here was something that had been happening all my life, and I'd never paid any attention to it."

It was as if she'd seen a "blinding white light." When she got home, she couldn't wait to put the kids down for a nap so she could see if there were birds in her own yard. She bought binoculars and a field guide, and she hired one of Elisabeth's daughters, Anne, to baby-sit once a week so she and Elisabeth could go exploring together. One day, they saw dozens of Great Blue Herons tending to nests in some dead trees near a marsh. The nests looked flimsy to Phoebe-they were just bunches of sticks-and it looked to her like they might fall out of the trees. But then it occurred to her that Great Blue Herons had been raising their young the same way for millions of years, since long before the evolution of humans. "Once again, I was totally staggered."

Later in the spring, she and Elisabeth saw another kind of heron, an American Bittern, skulking in some grass near a swamp. It was mating season for this bird, too, and, as they watched, it froze, pointed its bill in the air, and began "the most amazing" courtship display: again and again, it bowed forward, shook its head violently from side to side, let out a deep, booming call, and returned to its starting position.

With Elisabeth's help, Phoebe started learning to identify some birds. It's tough: you have to know which "field marks" set a species apart from similar ones, and you have to find them fast, because birds don't stick around. You have to know, say, that the Magnolia Warbler has a band of white on its tail, that the Prairie Warbler has a bright yellow breast, that the Blackpoll Warbler has long, pointed wings, and that the Connecticut Warbler has a big bill. If you work hard at learning all these field marks, however, you get to a point where you don't have to think about them so much. You start to recognize birds viscerally, like you recognize your friends.

The effort pays off, because once you've identified a bird, you can appreciate it on a deeper level. If you know you're looking at a Blackburnian Warbler, for instance, you also know that it spends most of the year somewhere between Peru and Panama, usually at about two thousand meters above sea level; that it subsists, for the most part, on caterpillars and beetles; that every April, it flies north across the Gulf of Mexico and settles for the summer somewhere between Georgia and Saskatchewan, where it looks for a mate and builds a nest, often in a high branch in a hemlock tree; and that the female lays three to five white eggs with little reddish blotches that hatch around early June.

Phoebe also started keeping a life list, as Elisabeth surely did. There were "surprises and new sights in every bush and tree," so the list got a bit bigger almost every day. "It was a season of euphoria," she wrote later. And: "It was a season of true magic, perhaps all the more powerful because of its belated entry into my life."

A picture of Phoebe was taken not long after she started birding, probably by Dave. She's sitting in the woods, on a stump or a rock, with binoculars hanging from a strap around her neck. Her black hair is cut in a smart, practical crop, and she's wearing a button-down blouse that she likely chose for its simplicity. She's not looking at the camera, but off in the distance, no doubt to see if there are birds. Her legs are a little spread-she's ready to spring up-and her hands grip her big black binoculars. She looks peaceful but intent. The sun shines on her from behind.

Dave and Phoebe had met as teenagers, in the farming town in Illinois where they both grew up. Dave's family had one of the town's most successful dairy farms; Phoebe's father commuted to Chicago to run his advertising agency. Dave and Phoebe started dating, shyly and from afar, when they were both in college, and they got married the week after Phoebe graduated, when she was twenty-two and he was twenty-three. They didn't talk much about their innermost thoughts and feelings, maybe because they both came from families where no one did, but it appears that during the early years of their marriage, when their kids were young, they were happy together. According to Elisabeth's daughter Anne, their baby-sitter, when they were all in the lake together, Dave would swim up behind Phoebe and put his arms around her; when Dave was about to come home from a trip, Phoebe would put on nice clothes and lipstick. "They'd look at each other and be so happy to see each other."

They were good parents, too. "I never saw either of them lose their tempers at the kids," Anne says. "Each kid was allowed to be an individual." The kids all consider themselves lucky: they weren't coddled or doted on, but they knew they were loved, and they have good memories of their time in Minnesota. With their mother, they baked cookies and brownies, read Charlotte's Web, listened to Pete Seeger and other sixties folksingers, and, beginning in 1965, looked for birds. One day, in the woods, Phoebe found the nest of a Great Horned Owl, so named because it has two pointy tufts of feathers on the top of its head that look like horns. She took the kids to the nest again and again to see chicks hatch, fuzzy and white, from their eggs; grow into fierce, silent hunters; and, finally, fly off to fend for themselves.

In the summer of 1965, just a couple of months after she'd introduced Phoebe to birding, Elisabeth's husband got a job in Washington, D.C., and, to Phoebe's great sadness, the Seldens left Minnesota. Afterward, Phoebe continued birdwatching at her and Elisabeth's regular spots, but it must have been a little lonely-and difficult too, since she was still a novice. Dave, meanwhile, was getting frustrated at work. After he'd returned from his sabbatical, the poultry science department had been combined with two other departments at the School of Agriculture, animal science and dairy science, and his new boss knew little about poultry. Over a school vacation, Dave took some undergraduates to St. Louis for a tour of the Ralston Purina Company, which makes animal feed. The man who took them around had been in Dave's graduate program, and he offered him a job developing poultry feed, on the spot, a job that paid much better than his professorship did and would allow him to do more interesting research. So, in the summer of 1967, Dave and Phoebe decided to move the family to a suburb of St. Louis named Webster Groves.

It was a lot fancier than New Brighton. The houses were rambling and grand; there was a country club and a gourmet grocer's. Most of the men were doctors or executives who commuted to St. Louis. Almost all the women were housewives, and a lot of them were active in social clubs: the Engineers' Wives Club, the Kappa Kappa Gamma Alumnae Club, the Greater St. Louis Home Economists. Some of them took classes at the Webster Groves YMCA on "Entertaining with Elegance and Ease." ("Learn to set talked-about tables, serve memorable meals, plan parties with a theme, [and] make your own table linens and clever centerpieces," the Y advertised.) With help from both sets of parents, Phoebe and Dave bought a house three times the size of the one they'd had in Minnesota. It was old, white, and elegant, with a portico, gleaming arched windows, high ceilings, and big airy rooms. There were five bedrooms, six bathrooms, a formal dining room, and two studies.

In Minnesota, they'd had a lot of land; in Missouri, they had a lot of neighbors. There were about ten families on the block, many of them Catholic, each with four or five or six kids. Right away, the Snetsinger kids-ages three, five, six, and eight-made a lot of friends. They'd play outside all afternoon with them, until Phoebe called them to dinner at six. A lot of the mothers on the block were also friends, meeting during the day for lunch or bridge, but Phoebe didn't fit in with them, and she was more interested in getting to know other birdwatchers. She called the St. Louis chapter of the Audubon Society and was directed to a club right in her town, the Webster Groves Nature Study Society, with hundreds of members from around the city. They studied all kinds of things, but most people in the club focused on birds, and there were field trips twice a week to look for them. Later, Phoebe described the group as "the answer to my prayers."

"WGNSS," as it's called (pronounced WIG-ness), had been founded in 1920 by a quirky Quaker couple, Alfred and Elizabeth Satterthwait. Alfred was an entomologist for the federal government; Elizabeth was a housewife who, it was said, descended the stairs in their house by sliding down the banister. They didn't have any children, which might explain their wholehearted devotion to the club: they held meetings at their house, organized and led field trips, gave talks at local schools to recruit members, and helped send some of their protégés to college. So a whole generation of Webster Groves kids learned about birds and other aspects of nature from the Satterthwaits, and this generation, in turn, taught the next. By the late 1960s, when Phoebe joined WGNSS, there were bird clubs all over the country, but she was lucky to fall into such a vibrant, learned one. "As a novice, I couldn't have been in better hands," she wrote later.

At this point, the club was mostly adults. A lot of the men were of retirement age and had been birding since they were kids; some of them must have learned from the Satterthwaits themselves. There were a few women among the old-timers, too, but, for the most part, the women were like Phoebe-housewives in their thirties or forties who'd taken up birding when their kids were young, as a reprieve. Most had finished college, and some had gone to graduate school. One woman, Martha Gaddy, had graduated from law school and passed the bar exam, but no one-including her father, who had his own law practice-had been willing to hire her. Instead, he hired Martha's husband, whom she'd met in law school, while Martha stayed home to raise their kids.


Excerpted from LIFE LIST by Olivia Gentile Copyright © 2009 by Olivia Gentile. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Olivia Gentile earned a BA from Harvard College and an MFA from Columbia University. She has worked as a newspaper reporter for which she won the Vermont Press Association's Rookie Reporter of the Year Award and the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalist's Magazine Writing Award.

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Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
port4u More than 1 year ago
Phoebe Snetsinger was given months to live. She then proceeded to beat the cancer. She was able to list the most species of birds by anyone in the world at that time. Anyone interested in birds will enjoy this book. The book has some charming illustrations by Rebecca Layton.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
BirdinaTree More than 1 year ago
If money were no object, how would you spend the rest of your life? In this woman's case, it meant traveling the world in search of birds. This a fascinating book about the pleasures and perils of following your wanderlust.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A great read for amateur & serious birders!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
GillyGoRound More than 1 year ago
this book makes a wonderful gift for birdlovers. we gave it to my mother-in-law, and she thoroughly enjoyed it.
IreneA75 More than 1 year ago
I loved this book ... it was hard to put down. The writing is beautiful, and Phoebe was a fascinating woman. I'm not a birdwatcher, but I'm thinking about becoming one now.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was chosen for our book club-with an optimistic outlook. Unfortunately the book was written/read like a high school term paper. The subject cold, detached and selfish. Not wanting to be a spoil sport I pushed through the book-while others in the group struggled to stay awake while reading. Unless you are a Bird enthusiast or scientist I doubt you will find this book inspiring, enlightening or remotely enjoying.
SFAndrea More than 1 year ago
Bought this book because it was featured in Oprah. Overall a very interesting and thought provoking story, that was reasonably well researched. The writing, however, was dull, repetitive, and generally a bit tough to slog through.