Phoebe Snetsinger: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

phoebe snetsinger, phoebe snetsinger google doodle

Phoebe Snetsinger. (Juliana Chen/Google)

Phoebe Snetsinger, an American birder who held the record for bird sightings at the time of her death in 1999, is being celebrated with a Google Doodle on what would have been her 85th birthday.

Snetsinger, who was born in Illinois and lived in Webster Groves, Missouri, was famous for having seen 8,398 bird species. She died at the age of 68 in November 1999. There were only about 9,000 known species at the time of her death, and no other person had seen more than 8,000.

“Today, we celebrate the courage of Ms. Snetsinger, and the beauty of life — however hidden it may be,” Google says.

Here’s what you need to know about Phoebe Snetsinger:


1. Snetsinger’s Interest in Birding Intensified After She Was Diagnosed With Terminal Cancer at the Age of 50

The Blackburnian warbler was the bird that got Phoebe Snetsinger interested in birding. (Paul Hurtado/Flickr)

The Blackburnian warbler was the bird that got Phoebe Snetsinger interested in birding. (Paul Hurtado/Flickr)

Phoebe Snetsinger became interested in birding when she saw a Blackburnian warbler in 1965, according to her memoir, Birding on Borrowed Time, which was published posthumously in 2003.

She was living in Minnesota at the time and was taken on a birding trip by a friend, Olivia Gentile, who wrote a biography of Snetsinger, Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds, told the Hartford Courant.

Snetsinger said she was blown away by the bird’s beauty and became obsessed with birding.

“Phoebe wasn’t meant to be a housewife,” Gentile told the Courant. “What happens when society pushes you into a role you aren’t meant to play?”

Stensinger’s interest in birding, and seeing as many species as possible, intensified when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, melanoma, in 1981, at the age of 50, according to the New York Times:

Mrs. Snetsinger liked to say her avian ardor ”began with a death sentence,” and her relentless energy reflected that level of urgency as her cancer went into the first of several remissions. Family members and friends could not imagine her without binoculars, floppy hat, sneakers, telescope and other field gear as she scurried around the globe on scores of bird tours, most costing more than $5,000. An inheritance paid the bills; she supplied the boundless energy. She said she spent more time in the world’s jungles, mountains and other wild areas than at home.

Snetsinger had been told she had incurable cancer and only a year left to live, so she went on a trip to Alaska instead of undergoing treatment. She returned to find her cancer was in remission, according to the New York Times.

“She came back and felt good,” her husband, David, told the Times. “Things just started snowballing from there.”


2. She Lived for 18 More Years, Dying in a Van Crash While Birding in Madagascar

Snetsinger went on to live another 18 years, with her cancer recurring every five years or so, according to the New York Times.

She died on November 18, 1999, in a van crash in Madagascar, where she was on a birding trip, according to the Times.

“She was a celebrity in our bunch,” Bret Whitney, a tour operator who was traveling with Snetsinger, said in her New York Times obituary.

“She gave so much to the birding world and had so much more left to give,” G. Stuart Keith, the first president of the American Birding Association, told the Times.

“Once she was diagnosed with cancer, she spent virtually all of her time either studying birds or traveling the world in search of them. When she saw a particularly beautiful bird, she’d jump up and down in celebration, smiling so wide that her eyes were little slits,” her biographer, Olivia Gentile, says on her website.


3. She Was the Daughter of Leo Burnett, the Advertising Executive Who Created Tony the Tiger, the Marlboro Man & the Maytag Repairman

Phoebe Snetsinger as a child. (Family photo)

Phoebe Snetsinger as a child. (Family photo)

Snetsinger was born June 9, 1931, as Phoebe Burnett in Lake Zurich, Illinois. Her father was Leo Burnett, the famed advertising executive who created several iconic campaigns, including Tony the Tiger for Frosted Flakes, the Marlboro Man and the Maytag Repairman. Her inheritance from her father helped fund her birding trips around the world. Her mother, Naomi Geddes Burnett, was a librarian. She had two brothers.

Snetsinger graduated from Swarthmore College, majoring in German, according to her New York Times obituary.
She married Dave Snetsinger, after college when he returned home from serving in the Army in Korea. They had met as children at a 4-H Club in Illinois, according to the Times.

“The role of housewife never suited her. She had wanted to be a scientist, but for a young woman in the 1950s that wasn’t realistic, not if you wanted to be a part of mainstream society and have a family. So she married a few days after she finished college, had four kids by her early thirties, and stayed home to take care of them while her husband pursued a career as a scientist,” her biographer, Olivia Gentile, says on her website. “She took up birdwatching when her kids were young, as a way of getting out of the house. Still, she grew more and more restless, and by the time she was in her forties she was writing poems about fleeing the suburbs, which she found cold and sterile, for a wild, weedy jungle.”


4. She Traveled to Several Dangerous Areas & Was Nearly Killed During One Trip to New Guinea

The cover of Snetsinger's memoir.

The cover of Snetsinger’s memoir.

Snetsinger’s trips to find rare bird species took her around the world, including to dangerous area.

During one trip, in New Guinea, she was assaulted and nearly killed, according to the Hartford Courant.

But she was willing to go wherever her quest took her.

“If I had taken no risks in life and followed only the most cautious route, I’d never have done most of what has been most meaningful to me,” Snetsinger wrote in a letter to her children, according to Cleveland.com.

Gentile wrote in Life List that her travels also hurt her personal life. It put stress on her marriage and her relationship with her children. She skipped her own mother’s funeral and her daughter’s wedding because of previously scheduled trips.

“Somehow I developed a feeling of virtual invincibility once I was on the plane and heading toward new places and birds; I was leaving the threat behind,” Snetsinger wrote in her memoir.


5. She had 4 Children, 3 of Whom Pursued Bird-Related Careers

Drawings of birds used for the Doodle.  (Juliana Chen/Google)

Drawings of birds used for the Doodle. (Juliana Chen/Google)

Snetsinger and her husband Dave, had four children, who are all still alive. Dave Snetsinger died in 2014.

She had a son, Thomas, and three daughters, Penny, Carol and Susan.

According to her New York Times obituary, three of her four children pursued careers related to birds. Thomas Snetsinger became a bird researcher, studying endangered species for the federal government. Carol also became a bird researcher in Alaska and Montana, and Susan was a “student of the spotted owl in the Northwest,” according to the Times. Penny Snetsinger is a chemistry professor at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut.

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