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.
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.”
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?