Life List

One woman’s quest to see as many of the world’s birds as possible.

Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds By Olivia Gentile Bloomsbury 345 pp., $26

For language lovers, it is one of life’s pleasures to encounter those whose names match their professions: Margaret Spellings, the former Secretary of Education; Major Major; John C. Flood, plumber.

The names suggest the pull of destiny. We can easily imagine Rev. Lord’s inevitable slog to the monastery or the pressure of being called Larry Brilliant. (Thank goodness he succeeded).

And then there are those who must be coaxed into their destiny. For 34 years, the only thing that suggested Phoebe Snetsinger would become a celebrated bird-watcher was her name.

“Phoebe” was given to her by her parents, a librarian-turned-housewife and an advertising magnate, because they thought it sounded nice. “Snetsinger” came from her husband, Dave, an Illinois farm boy who eventually climbed the corporate ladder at Purina, specializing in – of all things – chicken feed.

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Swarthmore, Snetsinger stayed home with the couple’s four children, a dedicated but dissatisfied mother who might have served only as a cautionary tale for feminists if, one day in 1965, she hadn’t encountered – in her own backyard – a Blackburnian Warbler.

Snetsinger’s very ordinariness is part of the charm of Life List, Olivia Gentile’s provocative biography of an amateur ornithologist.

If Snetsinger were a bird she’d be small and brown, with bright eyes and a determined, pecking beak. Most people would probably overlook her, but an experienced bird-watcher (or, as those in the business prefer, “birder,” since it sounds more active) would recognize her origins and destination, the distinct pitch of her voice, and the environment in which she thrived.

Which is exactly what Gentile does: Just as Snetsinger meticulously researched and recorded information about the more than 8,000 birds she eventually identified, Gentile gives us Snetsinger, an individual rendered interesting through close examination and a consideration of the species she represents.

Shortly after that 1965 encounter, Snetsinger joined a bird-watching club in Missouri, where her husband was transferred. Initially she enjoyed the camaraderie as much as the birding, and she liked being in nature and learning something new every day.

As the children grew and her husband progressed in his job, Snetsinger started keeping a “life list” – a tally of each kind of bird she’d seen. At the time, birding was becoming increasingly popular, but few women pursued the hobby seriously; likewise, Snetsinger balanced her pastime with her family life.

Then, at the age of 49, she was diagnosed with cancer and given a year to live. Suddenly, her appetite for adventure and achievement knew no bounds.

As it happened, she did not become ill. Instead she lived to throw herself into birding, traveling to every continent, and braving cannibals, earthquakes, and bandits on her quest to compile the field’s longest tally of birds seen.

Although it forms the spine of the story, Snetsinger’s drive to catalog bird sightings may not be enough to sustain the lay reader’s attention. (Bird enthusiasts, however, may well be enthralled. In addition to being extremely accomplished, Snetsinger was apparently also generous in her knowledge and served as a mentor and hero to many in the field.)

To add drama to the story, Gentile – a former journalist – also reports incidents from trips taken by other birders that illuminate the risks of birding and hint that Phoebe’s competitiveness may often have trumped her good judgment. Most important, Gentile also keeps another version of a Snetsinger’s life list: a tally of the family events that she missed by birding and the relationships that suffered for her lack of attention.

The rigor that Gentile brings to documenting the costs of ambition would be unusual in the biography of, say, a successful man. (Snetsinger’s father, for example, was consumed by his career).

Also rare but welcome is Gentile’s matter-of-fact mention of how other birders acquired the money to travel or what they did with their kids when they were away. Not surprisingly, many of the top birders were men, and most had early business successes and wives who stayed behind to maintain the home.

That Snetsinger flew the coop was both a point of pride and a point of friction for her family, and Gentile does not cast judgment but simply describes what she sees. By documenting the tension between the obligation to others and the obligation to oneself, Gentile has written a book as much about the life of women as about a woman’s life.

Kelly Nuxoll is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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