Olivia Gentile’s “Life List,” is the story of one woman’s insatiable quest for birds. This is a story that in some ways is difficult to believe because the lengths to which Phoebe Snetsinger went traveling the far reaches of the Earth is beyond what many of us could even begin to imagine. Gentile was given access to the family and the family history and through this correspondence she is able to share this story.
Snetsinger, a suburban housewife and mother of four, was an avid backyard birder. She was also the daughter of advertising legend Leo Burnett. Just before she turned fifty she was given a melanoma diagnosis and told she had little time left. She made the jump to birder light speed, circling the globe again and again until she had amassed more species than anyone in history. (Nearly 8400) She endured major hardships, some of which could have easily made a lesser human fold. She was relentless, even skipping family events, weddings and anything else that got in her way.
This is a tale of obsession, and frankly one that made me bounce from being in awe to being slightly ashamed.
Another takeaway is that many of those birding during this time felt like this was the Golden Age of birding. They knew, even then, the world was losing species and habitat at an alarming rate. If you fast forward to today you realize just how accurate they were. In 2020 New Mexico we had a two day period where thousands of birds died in mid flight, nearly statewide. Remember, when we see birds we are seeing some of the last remaining dinosaurs.
Gentile delivers a spy novel in bird form. A page-turning story with good girls, bad guys and bewildered bystanders. Snetsinger also wrote her own book, “Birding on Borrowed Time,” which I am adding to my list. If you like adventure, birds and a good story then get it, read it.