Google Doodle celebrates avid birder Phoebe Snetsinger

Today’s animated Google Doodle celebrates the 85th birthday of Phoebe Snetsinger (1931-1999), a woman who, at age 49, was diagnosed with terminal melanoma, and decided to make the most of her remaining years by seeing as many species of birds as she could. And she got 17 more years—traveling the world four months every year looking for birds. As the Independent notes, she racked up a total of 8300 species on her life list—more than anyone had ever seen before. (It’s estimated that there are roughly 10,400 bird species on the planet.)


Snetsinger’s life, even aside from the melanoma, wasn’t all beer and skittles:

“People would get excited when they found out they’d be on a tour with her, and were honored when she took time out to help them in the field,” wrote Olivia Gentile, author of “Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds”. “Even catching a glimpse of her was thrilling, as if she were a rock star.”

Yet the trips abroad took their toll. She reportedly missed her mother’s funeral and her daughter’s wedding to attend birding tours. She injured her knee on a mountain trail and sustained a permanently crippled arm after she broke her wrist.

Worse was to come. When she was staying at an isolated lagoon in Papua New Guinea, her guide was beaten up and she was gang-raped by five men. One year later, Ms Snetsinger revisited the scene of the attack.

The incredible feat of one woman’s epic journey of discovery and documentation came at the ultimate cost.

On her final trip abroad in Madagascar in November 1999, the van Ms Snetsinger was riding in rolled over and crashed.

The world’s most famous bird-watcher died instantly, at the age of 68 – but not before she had spotted an exceptionally rare Helmet vanga.

Here’s a helmet vanga (Euryceros prevostii) from northeast Madagascar:

In her memoir, she wrote: “If it’s my last trip, so be it – but I’m going to make it a good one and go down binoculars in hand.”


Phoebe Snetsinger

Snetsinger’s now been surpassed by several avid birders; the new record is apparently held by Jon Hornbuckle, who saw 9414 species. (See his website here.) Here he is with a bird; can you identify it?

JHwith ???



  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    I don’t want to be that guy, but

    “Today’s animated Google Doodle …”

    Should read

    “Today’s animated Google Doodle in the United States …”

    Or something like that.

    • Dominic
      Posted June 9, 2016 at 8:38 am | Permalink

      …especially as in the UK we have an un-animated Google Doodle for the 180th birthday of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson!

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted June 9, 2016 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

        I must admit to being out of the house 08:30 to 22:30 today, so didn’t see either version.
        OTOH, I do like the bit in the animation if the two nestlings stretching a worm between themselves. If I’ve understood a repeated tweet from NatGeo, their animation department is working on “Gosh, ain’t Dinosaurs Big Fierce Scary and Dead!” episode 5705, and they’d released a still of two Tyrannosaurs (-ish) doing the same. but with a sauropod, not a worm.
        Should be a good animation when it’s finished.

  2. Posted June 9, 2016 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    Can’t ID the bird in the bottom photo; but it’s beautiful!

    • Dominic
      Posted June 9, 2016 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      Nor can I but – does it do the wing display for-
      scaring predators?
      attracting females?
      or displaying to other males – sort of “my colours are brighter than yours”…?

      • Posted June 9, 2016 at 9:20 am | Permalink

        Both males and females have the same beautiful pattern, so it hasn’t evolved to scare other males.

  3. Posted June 9, 2016 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    I cheated to find out the bird species, so I won’t reveal it.

  4. Diana MacPherson
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    What horrible experiences she had. Just when you think your own life is annoying….

    Also, her name sounds like the name of a bird.

  5. Mathieu Siol
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    The bird handled by Jon Hornbuckle is a wonderful Sunbittern (Eurypyga helias)

    • darrelle
      Posted June 9, 2016 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      I had never heard of it before. Looking at the neck, head and beak I had guessed that it is closely related to egrets or herons, but Wikipedia has disabused me of that notion.

  6. John Harshman
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    The mystery bird’s closest relative is found thousands of miles away, only on the island of New Caledonia, and the relationship isn’t very easy to spot unless you see the threat display.

  7. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Travel is – unfortunately – tough. But some travelers are tougher!

    Wonder if birders acquire an ability to recognize and remember all those thousand species? More likely it is a phenomena partly relying on photos. My own response to seeing and hearing that many birds, which I usually like, is – excuse my French – “birdie, birdie, non, non”.

  8. Kevin
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Extraordinary. Achieving a great deal in one’s life is just a matter of taking little steps forward in a journey that can last decades.

    Everyone is capable of great things and you do not have to be intellectually gifted or genetically blessed in order to make those things happen.

  9. Paul Matthews
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    I met and shared a tent with Jon Hornbuckle while birding in Tikal, Guatemala, in 1993. Really nice guy. He seemed astonished, though, when I said I was going to take the afternoon off from birding to see the sights at Tikal (Mayan ruins). Clearly a very passionate and dedicated birder.

  10. Posted June 9, 2016 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    I can’t imagine enumerating that many of much of anything macroscopic, never mind animals of a given sort … (And I’m a guy with ~1000 books!)

    • Kevin
      Posted June 9, 2016 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

      It’s just passion, diligence and mix of OCD, maybe.

      I once decided I needed to learn more about music and at the the time the Stanford Music library had 2635 CDs. I checked each one out and listened to them all (at minimum a couple minutes each). It took 3.5 years but now I know a little more about music.

  11. Posted June 10, 2016 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    I had no internet connection yesterday, so I don’t know if we in Europe had that google doodle. The one we have today is about the European soccer championship, this is what it looks like:

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