Phoebe Snetsinger: Birder Extraordinaire


Only two bird watchers in history have ever seen more than 8,000 of the approximately 9,600 species of birds found on our planet. Phoebe Snetsinger, of Missouri, was one of the two. Her father, Leo Burnett, was the ad exec who helped bring the Jolly Green Giant, the Marlboro Man, Toucan Sam, Charlie the Tuna, Morris the Cat, the Pillsbury Doughboy and Tony the Tiger into our lives. Why is that important when discussing a birder? Easy: money! Only 900 species are found in the US and Canada, so a serious birder needs to have enough dough to travel around the world.

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.)

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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.

Not that many moons ago, if you asked an ornithologist how many species of birds there were, s/he would have said about 6,000. Five years from now, they expect there will be more like 18,000. It's not that birds are evolving, it's more that we're changing our definitions of what we call a species. Who knows how many of those 18,000 Snetsinger could have crossed off her list.

Any serious birders out there? How many have you counted? What's your best birding story?