And Her Birds Still Sing

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:22

    "She truly had an appreciation for the esthetic beauty of birds, the mysteries of their migration, their changing plumage?all aspects of birds and the natural world," explains Bret Whitney, cofounder of Field Guides, the Austin-based company that books international birding tours. "The thing that got her interested to start with was simply realizing how much joy birds brought her."

    That joy began when a neighbor turned Snetsinger, whose surname sounds remarkably like an as-yet-undiscovered avian species, on to birding. "We were raising four small children at the time," recalls David Snetsinger, her husband of 46 years, speaking from their home in the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves, "and she was looking for an outlet."

    In 1981, a doctor diagnosed Phoebe with melanoma, dramatically forecasting that she had six to 12 months to live. Although she'd joined the Webster Groves Nature Study Society (WGNSS) when her family relocated from Minnesota in 1967, she had until then restricted her birding to the continental U.S. After undergoing surgery, though, and burdened with a veritable death sentence, she hightailed it to Alaska on a birding expedition, then crammed in as many trips as possible, visiting all seven continents, including Antarctica, where she notched the rockhopper penguin.

    "She increased her birding skills, and her bird count continued to mount," remembers her husband. "She got to 3000, then 4000 and 5000." The birds?Whiskered Pitta, Yellow-headed Rockfowl, the endangered Hawaiian crow, the Short-tailed albatross?and the countries?Ivory Coast, Tibet, Brazil, the Philippines?blew by in a blur. "For several years she was extremely competitive," notes Whitney. "There was a tense race for Number One that traded back and forth a couple of times. Eventually, Phoebe emerged from the pack and just ran away with it."

    Right behind her is Pete Winter, who, weirdly enough, lives near the Snetsingers, also is a member of the WGNSS and traveled with her on several overseas birding excursions. "Phoebe was the greatest," beams Winter, now 79 and boasting a life list of more than 7500. "She did her homework better than anybody else, and she often knew more about the birds than the leaders of the tours she went on."

    Four years ago, Phoebe reached 8000, a birding first, when she tracked down a Rufus-necked wood rail in a Mexican swamp. "That was a landmark," says David, "and she said she was going to slow down, but she was hooked." And yet he insists that his wife wasn't preoccupied with mere numbers. "She never was looking to set records," claims David. "She enjoyed the chase, she enjoyed the intellectual challenge." She kept detailed records of her sightings, banging out the essential data on 3-by-5 index cards with her portable Remington typewriter, a relic from her college days, and, once a year, reporting everything to the Colorado Springs-based American Birding Association, arbiter of life lists. (Snetsinger had feuded with the group recently, objecting to its decision to allow birders to add a new species to their lists if they heard a specific bird without actually seeing it. She asked the organization to withdraw her name from its rankings.)

    Born in Indianapolis and raised in suburban Chicago, Snetsinger was the daughter of Leo Burnett, founder of the Chicago-based advertising agency behemoth that bears his name. She worked for two years as a science teacher near Philadelphia, but chiefly functioned as "a full-time mother," according to her husband, who adds, "She inherited some money that gave her the freedom to pursue birding."

    At 5-feet-2-inches, Snetsinger "didn't look very strong," Whitney relates, "but she possessed unflagging energy. She was the first one out to the bus most days, always dressed smartly in her field outfit. She had almost a military kind of regimentation."

    By the time of her Madagascar trip, Phoebe had seen 85 percent of the estimated 10,000 different species of birds, although a couple caused her considerable consternation by eluding her. "There's one that she desperately wanted to see that I'm virtually positive that she never did pick up," confides Whitney, "and that's the Spix's macaw. There's only one individual left in the wild." Twice, Whitney and Snetsinger ventured to Bahia, in northeastern Brazil, trying to catch a glimpse of the bird, but "access is highly restricted," Whitney sighs, and they were turned away.

    On Nov. 23, in the southwest corner of Madagascar, the 68-year-old Snetsinger was killed instantly when the van she was riding in with six other birders overturned. This past September she sent a letter to Field Guides requesting that, should she die during an expedition, she be cremated on the spot and her ashes immediately dispersed. She gave her family the same letter, and while her husband allows that they've honored the first part of the request, they've decided to fly her ashes home and, at a later date, scatter them in the Teton mountains, where Phoebe particularly enjoyed birding.

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