Today it is the birthday, besides my wife’s, of Phoebe Snetsinger, née Burnett (June 9, 1931 – November 23, 1999). She was an American bird-watcher famous for having seen and documented birds of over 8,398 different species by the time of her death, at the time more than anyone else in history.
To give you some perspective on just what an fantastic accomplishment seeing 8,000 birds is, consider this:
Only 250 or so people have ever hit the 5,000 mark. Only 100 people have made it to 6,000 and only 12 or so have seen more than 7,000. In addition to money, serious birding requires time and strict adherence to the rules. There are birders who’ve been blacklisted for cheating and others that have fought over what actually constitutes a sighting (some birders say if you “hear” a bird, you’ve seen it.)
Phoebe Snetsinger only became a serious bird watcher after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given six months 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! 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.
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. So, in the end, cancer didn’t do her in, but her obsessive hobby did.