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Who is Phoebe Snetsinger?

Only two bird watchers in history of the world till now have ever seen more than 8,000 of the approximately 9,600 species of birds found on this planet. Phoebe Snetsinger, of Missouri, was one of the two. Her father, Leo Burnett, was the ad mogul who helped bring the Jolly Green Giant, the Marlboro Man, Toucan Sam, Charlie the Tuna, Morris the Cat, the Pillsbury Doughboy and Tony the Tiger into our lives. Why is that so important when we are discussing about a birder? It’s that much easy: It all depends on money and time you can spend! Only 900 species are found in the US and Canada where she was living, so a serious birder needs to have enough support on both money and time to travel around the world and get the best information that human race will need for at least a thousand more years.

After receiving a melanoma diagnosis at age 50, she took birding up more avidly, becoming known as a sharp observer who kept detailed notes. She was described as having had an excellent memory to remember, and a strong competitive spirit like no one else. Yes, she visited almost the entire world to get them in front of her eyes, 8398 is the number of birds.

Great works:

Phoebe Snetsinger became a very serious bird watcher after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given six months left only to live. It’s quite possible that counting, or listing as it’s sometimes called, actually helped her beat that diagnosis; she lived not just another year, but another 17 years with the power of her will on every moment to break the rules and get the best out of it! And she would have lived longer, no doubt, were birding not such a dangerous hobby. Yes, on top of the financial independence and time, one also needs a certain amount of courage to trek into the wild, deep into jungles and forests of enormous size year by year.

In 1999, on a birding trip to Madagascar, as she prepared to see her 8,500th bird, Snetsinger was killed in a freak car accident in the middle of nowhere to give support or save life. So, in the end, all those diseases or the broken hand or leg didn’t win to show its capability, but her obsessive not leaving or unstopping hobby did.

Early Life

Phoebe Burnett was born on June 9, 1931, to Naomi Geddes and Leo N. Burnett and was raised in Lake Zurich, Illinois. She attended a small elementary school in Lake Zurich with only two other students as that was a very calm and quiet city.

At the age of 11, she met with her future husband, David Snetsinger (who was only 13 that time), at a 4-H club. She went on to study at Swarthmore College and graduated from there as a German major. After her husband’s military service in Korea and willing to get more degrees on German, they both went on to study for a master’s degree in which she obtained a masters degree in German literature.

Her father Leo Burnett, a legend in the advertising industry for a long time, from whom she inherited many of the traits that led to his success in business and a considerable fortune after his death in 1971. These funds aided in paying for numerous trips in pursuit of her later life hobby and found the most precious number any human being might dream of.

Personal Life:

Phoebe and David Snetsinger had four children, three of them are bird researchers in the United States. Their kids at the time of Phoebe’s death, Carol was involved in research on birds in Alaska and Montana; Susan was “a student of the spotted owl in the Northwest” of the U.S.; and Thomas was researching endangered species of birds for the federal government. Their third daughter, Penny, is a chemistry professor at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.

As described by Frank Graham, Jr. in his review of Olivia Gentile’s biography of Snetsinger, Life List, her earlier hobby before bird watching was writing poetry, which Graham, Jr. describes in this way:

“Inwardly, Snetsinger was consumed by boredom, frustration, and gloomy musings, which she expressed only in secret fits of poetry writing,”

In a snapshot:

  • 1931- Born in Lake Zurich, Illinois, USA
  • 1965- The bird watching journey started with a friend
  • 1970- Locally well know face as a birder
  • 1971- Her father Leo Burnett died.
  • 1981- Doctor diagnosed her with terminal melanoma when she was 50 years old
  • 1994- Guinness Book of Records named her “the world’s leading bird-watcher”
  • 1995- Submitted 8040 species list to American Birding Association (ABA) and to the Guinness Book of World Records.
  • 1999- Guinness Book of Records said of Phoebe Snetsinger as: “TOP BIRD-WATCHERS”
  • 1999- She died in Madagascar in a car accident
  • 2016- On her 85th birthday, a commemorative Google Doodle was posted on

Career or hobby of life:

When Snetsinger was 34, a friend in a Minneapolis suburb introduced her how to watch birds. Gifted with a photographic memory and always a fierce will to learn new things, she was very good at them. What began as an occasional visit to a local park soon became a consuming past time.

Snetsinger was always dreaming of being a scientist, as journalist Olivia Gentile recounted in her Snetsinger biography, Life List. But because this was the 1950s, she got married with: David Snetsinger, who worked as a scientist and administrator for Purina. Unhappy as a suburban housewife at home most of the time, trying occasionally writing dark poems, Phoebe took up birding as a hobby in the 1960s.

She became notable very quickly with her community. 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 to her. Phoebe Snetsinger, the bird watched, became part of a category of extreme birders who don’t just only want to observe birds in the street side, village, urban areas or wild — they want to see every kind of birds there is, particularly the rare ones, no matter how far they have to go to see for at least once.

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.

After Alaska trip, Snetsinger travelled widely to identify birds and see new places around the world. She visited a lot of remote areas, sometimes under unstable political conditions in some countries, to add to her growing life list. As an amateur ornithologist, she took copious field notes and also remembered a lot, especially regarding distinctive subspecies, many of which have since been reclassified as full species after while.

The long time of remission gave her a sense of invincibility, though she endured injuries, and in Papua New Guinea, she was gang-raped by five men with machetes. She returned to Papua New Guinea the next year. Her treks took her to deserts, swamps, jungles and mountains on every continent several times over to check new discovery. Over her career, she survived from malaria, a potentially deadly boat accident on the way while boating, and being taken hostage in Ethiopia for being a no one for them.

According to birder Nate Swick, birding in 2016 is much less effort than when Snetsinger did her work of observing birds in their habitat and that tough time as many nations these days have promoted ecotourism to strengthen their economy, and Snetsinger is seen by other birders as a pioneer of all time.

“People would get excited when they found out they’d be on a tour with her, and were honored when she took time out to help them in the field,” Gentile writes. “Even catching a glimpse of her was thrilling, as if she were a rock star.”

By 1995 Snetsinger had become the first person to list 8,000 birds and submitted a huge list to American Birding Association (ABA) and to the Guinness Book of World Records, but new species were now harder to find and each trip took its toll. She passed up her mother’s funeral and a daughter’s wedding so as not to miss a chance to see new birds. A knee injury hobbled her on slippery mountain trails, and a shattered wrist sustained in a fall left her with a permanently crippled arm. Snetsinger underwent surgery for a new melanoma scare which could be dangerous for her hobby and carrier.

Eventually, Snetsinger listed (by a revised count later) 8,398 of the world’s 9,700 species, a record since broken only a couple of times only. The end of her hobby not cancer, came in Madagascar in November 1999, when the van she was riding in rolled over and crashed. Death on tour was a fate she had previously envisioned in letters to her family and friends—a death, she might have said, she could live with forever to fulfill a dream journey.

Final words

“Birding is the best and most exciting pursuit in the world, a glorified never-ending one,”

wrote by Snetsinger in an article for Birding magazine months before her death in 1999.

”And the whole experience of a foreign trip, whether you see 10 new birds or 500, is simply too good to miss.”

In her memoir, she wrote: “If it’s my last trip, so be it – but I’m going to make it a good one and go down binoculars in hand.”

Finding and getting the best out of the nature, makes human race more visible and more practical as we are not all gifted with power, money or a good memory like Phoebe. But we all should be pleased and respect the way and the total she found on her own life time with those diseases, broken arm and gang rape situation, the memory of her as one of the best bird watcher will always be remembered. What the other bird watchers say? Please share your thoughts and respect the discovery..

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