Birding on Borrowed Time

BIRDING ON BORROWED TIME. Phoebe Snetsinger. American Birding Association, 2003. 307 pp. Softcover. 45 Illustrations (16 color plates) by H. Douglas Pratt; map of birding destinations. $19.95.

Often, when I meet other birders and tell them I am from Missouri, I'm asked if I knew Phoebe Snetsinger. I wish I had. In conversations at the bubbler in Tower Grove Park, St. Louis, or in the Australian outback, or the South African Karoo, she is spoken of with respect and fondness, and remembered for her skills, her tenacity, and her graciousness to other birders.

If you know Phoebe's name, you probably already know she lived in Webster Groves, MO, was the first person to see more than 8,000 bird species and, at her death in Madagascar in November, 1999, had seen more than 8,400 species (the highest life list in the world).

BIRDING ON BORROWED TIME was published posthumously, but it is obvious that Phoebe wrote her memoirs expecting to share the story of her birding adventures � the evolution of the driving fervor, the careful trip planning, the absorption in field guides, the meticulous record-keeping, the physical demands, discomfort and very real danger--with people who would nod, understand, accept, and applaud � other birders.

Phoebe's personal birding saga is the stuff of legends. Her golden fleece were living feathered creatures. She sought them out on seven continents and the seas between. She crawled up mountains, trekked deserts and steppes, slogged and struggled in the muck of rain forests and survived shipwreck. And she tells the tale of it all as openly and boldly as she lived it.

You do not need to have known Phoebe to know her passion. Every bird watcher knows the exciting, satisfying glow that just seeing a bird can bring. Every birder with a life list knows firsthand the thrill of living a goal-driven wanderlust, the delicious tension of seeking, the joy of a life look, the frustration of failure, the energizing effect of renewed effort.

Is this a book for birders, only? No. Most people will find BIRDING ON BORROWED TIME entertaining; the adventure of it is enough to grip and hold a reader. Phoebe's low-keyed, "just the facts, ma'am," style serves well to share the emotional experiences with birders and to provide non-birders an inkling of the dynamics that birders find so irresistible.

The oft-lamented dilemma of so many species, so many places and so little time is the drive shaft of Phoebe's story. Her sense of urgency is but a heightened version of the sensation all birders feel. Her ability to act in the face of that urgency with decisiveness unhampered by limited funds is something most birders envy, but it's an envy without resentment. It's without resentment because she did what most would like to do, and she did it so well and with such elan.

Phoebe lived many of our dreams. And there were some harrowing nightmares. She relates episodes of both dreams and nightmares simply, directly. She experienced, she rested, recuperated, and set off again.

It's an honest book. She is candid about the compulsion of birding. She is frank about the consuming nature of birding and the role of that aspect of it in her reaction to the diagnosis of cancer. And she is open about the effects of competitive birding on relationships.

If the book has shortcomings, they are probably different for each reader. The non-lister (and some listers) will find her discussion of taxonomy and proposed percentage method of listing esoteric. For others, the discussion and proposal will stir up birders' second passion: heated debate.

If so much emphasis on far away places is aggravating to xenophobes, or the names of non-American birds are daunting to birders of provincial persuasion, a study of Doug Pratt's illustrations should mollify them, ignite the spark of desire to see the real thing, and give some insight into Phoebe's compelling quest.

No, I never met Phoebe. But now, I've birded with her from Brazil to Borneo to the Bering Sea. Now I know her, and I know myself a little better.

Edge Wade