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Of Names and Birds

April 8, 2010

Let’s be blunt about it: this blog loves comments.

My good friend Robin seemed genuinely surprised by the fact that I hadn’t grown up knowing what a robin looked like. Who knows, maybe if a bird named julia existed, I’d have become a bird watcher years ago! I guess some people are just born with surplus bird knowledge by virtue of their name.

Speaking of the correlation between names and one’s predilection for birding — perhaps that explains the case of Phoebe Snetsinger, the world’s greatest birder. Did she know that she was named after a phoebe?

This picture is actually more exciting than the actual bird in real life. I’m assuming I saw the Eastern Phoebe (or, sayornis phoebe, if you’re really curious) on Saturday and, truth be told, it was a bit on the drab side.

But back to Phoebe Snetsinger. I first heard her name in Jonathan Franzen’s essay “My Bird Problem” and couldn’t believe that, like Franzen, I too had lived within a stone’s throw from Snetsinger’s St. Louis suburb and frequently drove through Webster Grove without ever knowing that it had been home to the iconic birder. Phoebe Snetsinger started birding when she was 34 years old; up until that point she had been a housewife and mother of 4. Though she was educated at Swarthmore and got a degree in chemistry, the 50s were no time for a woman to follow a professional career path. She settled into a marriage, motherhood, suburban living, none of which held much meaning for her. When she was diagnosed with what seemed like terminal cancer in the early 80s, she vowed to see as many birds as humanly possible in the time she had left to live. And she did. And she ended up living until 1999, when she died (not of cancer) in Madagascar, in a truck accident on her way to find a rare bird. By the time of her death, Snetsinger clocked in well over 8000 birds. Olivia Gentile published a gripping biography of Snetsinger’s discovery and utter obsession with birding. I highly recommend Life List — a fabulous read about a pathologically obsessed individual; it’s gripping and tragic at the same time.

Who knows what would have happened had Snetsinger’s parents named her Rose rather than Phoebe. Perhaps she would have become the world’s greatest botanist?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 8, 2010 1:02 pm

    Love it! So maybe you can find a picture of what a julia would look like, if a julia was a bird. Would it be bright and flashy? Would it be subtle yet elegant?

    • April 8, 2010 1:10 pm

      Well, a julia would have a couple different plumages under its belt: bright and flashy midweek and subtle yet elegant on holiday weekends. You know, just to keep everyone on their toes. I’d have to think, though, how to distinguish a male julia from a female one. Judging by other birds I’ve seen, the male would have the flashier plumage. A julia would definitely be able to camouflage.

  2. Fireweed permalink
    April 8, 2010 1:04 pm

    I don’t think growing up knowing what a Robin looks like constitutes “a surplus bird knowledge.” That made me giggle. Ms. Snetsinger’s story if fascinating – yet another book to add to my list.

    • April 8, 2010 1:11 pm

      It’s a great read, as is Snetsinger’s autobiography, Birding on Borrowed Time. (but it from the Birding association’s website, not Amazon, where it’s totally overpriced). Such a fascinating person!

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