I hardly ever think to check out Google’s daily “Doodle,” but I really should! I love the idea of learning about a different historical event or noteworthy person each day. And, I particularly love that Google often chooses to highlight people that most of us have probably never heard of. That’s definitely the case today: Google’s Doodle is celebrating (what would be) the 85th birthday of Pheobe Snetsinger, the first person to see more than 8,300 bird species!
Even if you’re not interested in birding, the animated Doodle is seriously as adorable as they come! SO Cute!
As always, clicking on the Doodle brings up a Google Search on the subject; several articles about Pheobe Snetsinger were published today.
It turns out that Pheobe became interested in birding when she saw her first male Blackburnian Warbler at age 34. Around 15 years later, however, she was diagnosed with cancer and decided to spend her remaining time—however long or short that might be—traveling the world and seeing as many species as possible. This goal utterly consumed her life; in the end, it wasn’t cancer that killed her, but a car crash during a birding trip in Madagascar. Yet, at the time of her death, she had seen more bird species than any other single human in history. This was a particularly impressive feat, given that the international birding community was (and to a degree still is) dominated by men.
She wrote a memoir, Birding on Borrowed Time, and Olivia Gentile wrote Life List, a biography of Pheobe Snetsinger. As I only learned about Snetsinger today, thanks to Google’s Doodle (and my mom who alerted me, plus the friend who alerted her!), I haven’t read either book. The Amazon reviews for Birding on Borrowed Time include notes from a couple of people who actually knew her (one who met her on a birding trip and another who was introduced through a mutual friend), though, and it was interesting to read their first-hand impressions!
What Pheobe Snetsinger did was absolutely incredible. For 17 years, she spent four months of each year traveling the world. She was constantly in search of new bird species to add to her list, but she also visited museums, recorded songs, and took copious field notes.
Impressive as it is, her story also raises many questions. Clearly, she had the funds to make her extensive travels possible; most people certainly do not. Did she also donate money to bird conservation? I don’t know, but I’m sure the funds equivalent to the costs of all of her birding expeditions could have gone a long way in supporting avian research.
While I’m somewhat in awe of it, hers is also a story that I can’t quite relate to. I absolutely love encountering new birds while I travel, and my ideal travel adventures definitely include binoculars and bird books. I also have made it a point to try and see particular birds while traveling. Yet, I do not keep a life list of all the birds I have seen, and I rarely take trips for the express purpose of searching for birds (meaning, I also very much enjoy the scenery, plants, other critters, and cultural elements!). For me, birding is never a competition (not even a personal one), and I can get just as much enjoyment watching my thousandth (millionth?) chickadee as I can from seeing a bird that I have never before encountered (ok, with a few exceptions! Nothing was quite like seeing a Resplendent Quetzal, in Costa Rica…).
But, privilege and competitive birding aside, Pheobe Snetsinger’s story is also one of living life to the fullest, making dreams and following them through, and stepping out of the ordinary and into adventure.
The question “what would you do if you had 20 years and the funds to live out your dreams?” is interesting, and maybe worth pondering or discussing with friends for discourse and a good laugh. But, for most of us, that question has no bearing on real life. The more important question is simply: what are you passionate about, and does your life show it? That’s a question that we can all benefit from both asking and acting upon.