American Birding Podcast



Happy 85th Birthday, Phoebe Snetsinger! Love, Google.

In 1981, following a cancer diagnosis, Phoebe Snetsinger started a journey that would see her travel the globe in search of birds, tallying a life list of more than 8,300 species (depending on which taxonomy one follows) before tragically dying in 1999 in a car accident in Madagascar. Her last life bird, Red-shouldered Vanga, had only been formally described two years earlier.

To say that Snetsinger was a pioneer is a vast understatement. World listing just feels easier now, with tour companies traveling to nearly every corner of the globe and local guides building ecotourism industries in nations that were nearly impossible to access, let alone travel freely with binoculars, 20 years ago. Back when Phoebe was building her list the pursuit was taken on by only a few eccentrics, and nearly all of them were men, as if she needed another degree of difficulty to add to her story. It’s that sort of context that makes her 8300+ total, the lion’s share of every known species of bird in the world at the time, all the more impressive.

So it’s great to see Google honor what would be Phoebe Snetsinger’s 85th birthday today with a wonderful doodle. You can find it on Google’s homepage (I’m sure you know the URL), or here. And an excellent article on Snetsinger was published today in the Independent as well.

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We at the ABA owe a particular debt to Phoebe. She was a big player in the organization in its early days, and significantly influenced its trajectory and growth at a time when an organization dedicated to the hobby of birding seemed like a strange thing. And for that, we’re certainly grateful.

The ABA posthumously published Snetsinger’s memoirs, Birding on Borrowed Time, in 2003. And a touching biography by Olivia Gentile, entitled Life List, was published in 2009. Both are worth reading for the adventure, improbability, and inspiration of her story.


So happy birthday to Phoebe Snetsinger, and congratulations on your Google doodle notoriety. It’s a lovely tribute to her, and this funny little hobby of birding that, as it did with Phoebe, can easily come to be a major, defining part of one’s life.