by Paul Hond
Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds
By Olivia Gentile
Bloomsbury, 352 pages, $26
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Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds by Olivia GentilePhoebe Snetsinger’s parents didn’t name her after the phoebe, an insect-eating bird of the Americas. But had they been looking for a fitting bird name, they were alphabetically close: she was far more akin to the phoenix.

Which, as it turned out, was one of the few birds that Phoebe never saw.

The whole business started innocently enough. On a spring day in 1965, Phoebe, then a vaguely dissatisfied 34-year-old housewife and mother of four, was standing in a neighbor’s yard in Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis. The neighbor, who, like Phoebe, was what is now called a “stay-at-home mom,” handed her a pair of binoculars and pointed to a branch of an oak tree. What Phoebe saw — and felt — amounted to a rapture: “a black-and-white bird, no bigger than a child’s hand, with a yellow head, shiny black eyes, and a throat the color of a ripe mango.”

It was a Blackburnian Warbler, and, as the neighbor told Phoebe, it had flown north from South America to breed.

With this miraculous little moment, author Olivia Gentile ’03JRN sets Life List, the story of the world’s most prolific birder, on its remarkable flight.

Birding, with its leisurely sounding evocations of lawn chairs and field glasses, is the term given to what is in fact a far more rigorous pursuit. As Gentile vividly reports, serious birders, to say nothing of fanatical ones, take exceptional risks in order to spot and identify the more recondite members of the world’s nearly 10,000 species. These adventurers travel to remote jungles, inaccessible mountains, and the forests of unstable nations, where they might encounter violent weather, exotic illnesses, perilous altitudes, armed guerrillas, kidnappers, and even deadly birds, like the six-foot-tall Southern Cassowary, “known to kill people with a swift, eviscerating kick to the stomach.” And if they are lucky enough to glimpse a Crested Eagle, or the “improbable looking” Helmet Vanga of Madagascar (“a small black body, cat-like yellow eyes, and a giant, downwardly curved, electric-blue bill”), they will add the bird to what’s called a “life list,” a record of the birds one sees anywhere in the world, over a lifetime.

This list is the birder’s version of the gunfighter’s holster: each name is a notch by which one’s triumphs are tallied. The birding purist must be able to identify her quarry’s markings (as opposed to merely discerning its calls, an alternate criterion whose growing acceptance in birding circles offended Phoebe) in order to enter it, in good faith, into her catalog. For Phoebe, the moment of visual conquest produced a rush of ecstasy unlike anything in her experience.

That Phoebe had, by the end of her strange life, compiled more names on her list than anyone in history — approximately 8400, or a staggering 85 percent of the world’s birds — would be an enormous feat under the best of circumstances. (It also would have made her one of the most euphoric people on earth.) But, as Gentile tells us in clean, direct, unsentimental prose, Phoebe’s accomplishments were forged against tremendous adversity — and came at a heavy cost.

Not a financial cost: Phoebe had no trouble funding her next bird tour to Peru or Mongolia or Kenya or Australia. Her father, Leo Burnett, had started an advertising agency in Depression-era Chicago that later produced such hits as the Maytag Repairman and the Pillsbury Doughboy. From Leo, Phoebe inherited not just brains and ambition (she was high school valedictorian and an A student at Swarthmore) but the means to cross the globe dozens of times over. (In addition, Phoebe’s husband, Dave, made a good living at Purina as a researcher for, of all things, poultry feed.) In that regard, Phoebe’s achievements might be said to lie at the intersection of wealth and eccentric passion. But Phoebe, a habitual note taker and indexer, was also expanding science: her fieldwork has, among other things, led to the reclassification of several subspecies into distinct species. In any case, money could have taken her only so far — once she arrived at her wild, forbidding destinations, her body and mind had to do the rest. Good health was imperative.

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