In the winter of 1965, [Pheobe Snetsinger’s husband] Dave was away on sabbatical.
Phoebe stayed behind with the kids, only one of whom—Penny—had started school and two of whom—Carol and Sue—were still in diapers. I don’t know a lot of details about how she managed, but it couldn’t have been easy. With Dave gone, she didn’t get many breaks. Since the weather was so bad, she couldn’t even go outside some days, which meant she saw no other adults. The little house would have been loud with children’s cries. By springtime, she wrote in her memoir many years later, she was “starving” to do something that didn’t involve kids. She “badly needed some mental and physical diversion,” she wrote elsewhere. Once, when a reporter asked her about this time in her life, she said that her kids had been making her “kind of crazy.”
It was as if she’d seen a “blinding white light.” When she got home, she couldn’t wait to put the kids down for a nap so she could see if there were birds in her own yard.
She probably started feeling frustrated well before that winter, even if it took the winter to bring things into focus. In high school, she’d gotten all A's and planned to be a psychologist. She’d gone to one of the best colleges in the country, Swarthmore, in Pennsylvania, where she got almost all A’s and was chosen for Phi Beta Kappa, the national honor society. By her sophomore year, she’d decided to be a chemist, and she took a lot of advanced math and science classes. But, like many women who went to college in the 1950s, she got engaged when she was a senior (she had her “ring by spring,” as the saying went) and put aside her plans for a career. She taught for a while before she and Dave had kids, but since 1958, when Penny was born, she’d been a housewife.
Phoebe was shy and didn’t make friends easily, but she had one good friend in town, another shy, brainy housewife named Elisabeth Selden. Elisabeth and her husband, a journalist, lived nearby with their four kids. They were older than the Snetsinger kids, so Elisabeth had more freedom. She devoted a lot of her time to the civil-rights movement, the Senate campaigns of Hubert Humphrey, and other liberal causes, and she opened her house to foreign-exchange students at the University of Minnesota. In the spring and summer, when it was nice out, she watched birds.
One sunny morning in May 1965, after the snow had finally melted, Elisabeth had Phoebe over to her yard. According to Phoebe’s memoir, Elisabeth gave her some binoculars, pointed to a branch in an oak tree, and told her to look. What she saw “nearly knocked me over with astonishment”: 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. “I thought, ‘My god, that is absolutely beautiful.’” The bird, Elisabeth said, was a Blackburnian warbler, and had come north from South America to breed. She must have told her that dozens of species of warbler—all little and bright, with voices like flutes—came north every spring. “Here was something that had been happening all my life, and I’d never paid any attention to it,” Phoebe said later.
It was as if she’d seen a “blinding white light.” When she got home, she couldn’t wait to put the kids down for a nap so she could see if there were birds in her own yard. She bought binoculars and a field guide, and she hired one of Elisabeth’s daughters, Anne, to baby-sit once a week so she and Elisabeth could go exploring together. One day, they saw dozens of Great Blue herons tending to nests in some dead trees by a marsh. The nests looked flimsy to Phoebe—they were just bunches of sticks—and it looked to her like they might fall out of the trees. But then it occurred to her that Great Blue herons had been raising their young the same way for millions of years, since long before the evolution of humans. “Once again, I was totally staggered.”
Later in the spring, she and Elisabeth saw another kind of heron, an American bittern, skulking in some grass by a swamp. It was mating season for this bird, too, and as they watched, it froze, pointed its bill in the air, and began “the most amazing” courtship display: Again and again, it bowed forward, shook its head violently from side to side, let out a deep, booming call, and returned to its starting position.
With Elisabeth’s help, Phoebe started learning to identify some birds. It’s tough: You have to know which “field marks” set a species apart from similar ones, and you have to find them fast, because birds don’t stick around. You have to know, say, that the Magnolia warbler has a band of white on its tail, that the Prairie warbler has a bright yellow breast, that the Blackpoll warbler has long, pointed wings, and that the Connecticut warbler has a big bill. (If you work hard at learning all these field marks, you get to a point where you don’t have to think about them so much. You start to recognize birds viscerally, like you recognize your friends.)
The effort pays off, because once you’ve identified a bird, you can appreciate it on a deeper level. If you know you’re looking at a Blackburnian warbler, for instance, you also know that it spends most of the year somewhere between Peru and Panama, usually at about 2,000 meters above sea level; that it subsists, for the most part, on caterpillars and beetles; that every April, it flies north across the Gulf of Mexico and settles for the summer between Georgia and Saskatchewan, where it looks for a mate and builds a nest, often in a high branch in a hemlock tree; and that the female lays three to five white eggs with little reddish blotches that hatch around early June.
Phoebe also started keeping a life list, as Elisabeth surely did. There were “surprises and new sights in every bush and tree,” so it got a little bigger almost every day. “It was a season of euphoria,” she wrote later. And: “It was a season of true magic, perhaps all the more powerful because of its belated entry into my life.”
A picture of Phoebe was taken not long after she started birding, maybe by Dave. She’s sitting in the woods, on a stump or a rock, I think, with binoculars hanging from her neck. Her black hair is cut in a smart crop, and she’s wearing a button-down blouse that shows off a narrow waist. She’s not looking at the camera, but off in the distance, probably to see if there are birds. Her legs are a little spread—she’s ready to spring up—and her hands grip her big black binoculars. She looks peaceful but intent. The sun shines on her from behind.
Excerpted from Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds by Olivia Gentile ©2009. With permission from the publisher, Bloomsbury Press.
Olivia Gentile earned a B.A. from Harvard and an M.F.A. from Columbia. She was a fellow at the MacDowell Colony in 2006. She was a newspaper reporter in Vermont and Connecticut and now lives in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter. Or check out her W eb site.