Phoebe Snetsinger

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Phoebe Snetsinger
Born Phoebe Burnett
(1931-06-09)June 9, 1931
Lake Zurich, Illinois, United States
Died November 23, 1999(1999-11-23) (aged 68)
Cause of death Road traffic accident
Residence Webster Groves, Missouri
Nationality American
Education Swarthmore College
Known for Birding
Parent(s) Leo Burnett, father

Phoebe Snetsinger, née Burnett (9 June 1931, Lake Zurich, Illinois, United States – November 23, 1999, Madagascar), a resident of Webster Groves, Missouri, was a birder famous for having seen over 8,398 species by the time of her death, at the time more than anyone else in history. As the daughter of advertising magnate Leo Burnett, she inherited a small fortune which she used to fund numerous trips in pursuit of her hobby.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Snetsinger attended a small elementary school in Lake Zurich with only two other students. At the age of 11, she met her future husband (who was 13) at 4-H clubs. She went on to study at Swarthmore College and graduated as a German major. After her husband's military service in Korea, they both went on to study for a master's degree, in which she obtained a masters in German literature.[2]

Birding career and melanoma diagnosis[edit]

Inspired to begin birding after seeing a Blackburnian warbler in 1965, Phoebe did not follow the hobby ardently until a doctor diagnosed her with terminal melanoma in 1981. Instead of convalescence at home, she took a trip to Alaska to watch birds, and returned home to find the cancer in remission. From then on, she would travel to often remote areas, sometimes under dangerous environmental and political conditions, in order to add to her growing life list. As an amateur ornithologist, she took copious field notes, especially regarding distinctive subspecies, many of which have since been reclassified as full species.


While on a birding trip in Madagascar in 1999, the van she was riding in overturned, killing her instantly. Her final life bird, after almost two decades as a "terminal cancer patient," was the red-shouldered vanga, a species which had been described as new to science only two years before in 1997.

Snetsinger's memoir, titled Birding on Borrowed Time, was published posthumously in 2003 by the American Birding Association (ABA). The ABA describes this work as "More than merely a travel narrative, the book is also a profoundly moving human document, as it details how Phoebe Snetsinger's obsession with birds became a way of coping with terminal illness."


Three of Snetsinger's four children are bird researchers in the United States. Thomas J. Snetsinger, her son, specializes in threatened endemic birds of Hawaii.



  1. ^ Graham Jr., Frank. "The Endless Race". Audubon Magazine. Retrieved 18 March 2012. 
  2. ^ Martin, Douglas. "Phoebe Snetsinger, 68, Dies; Held Record for Bird Sightings". NY Times. Retrieved 18 March 2012.