To celebrate, I’m honouring some of the most illustrious women birders. Please comment below if you have other remarkable women birders to add to the list!
Phoebe Snetsinger comes to mind immediately, she was the first person to acquire a life list with more than 8,000 birds. Snetsinger’s story is documented in her autobiography, Birding on Borrowed Time, whose title refers to an incurable cancer diagnosis in 1981, to which she responded by deciding to spend her remaining days seeing as many bird species as possible. In the end, she exceeded her death sentence by 18 years. Not only did she see more birds than any other human, but her field notes and copious subspecies notes became an important contribution to ornithology.
Olivia Gentile’s illuminating biography Life List offers a more human glimpse into Snetsinger’s life and reveals a woman whose life was dominated by fierce obsession, but also, more tragically, a woman who was born in the 1950s and relegated to the life of a housewife and mother that didn’t suit her. I’ve always felt particular affection for Phoebe Snetsinger: we were both one-time residents of Missouri and both discovered birding at the age of 34. Her spark bird was the blackburnian warbler, whereas mine was much more common (and easier to spot!) red-winged blackbird.
Mabel Osgood Wright
Another astonishing woman birder is Mabel Osgood Wright, founder of the Connecticut Audubon Society in 1896 and the Birdcraft Museum and Sanctuary in Fairfield, CT. A prolific nature writer, she named the sanctuary after her field guide, Birdcraft, which was first published in 1895. I received a 1936 edition of this field guide as a gift on International Women’s Day.
Osgood Wright’s introduction to Birdcraft offers wise and absolutely pertinent advice to the beginner birder: “If you wish to go on in this pleasant quest, you must take with you three things; a keen eye, a quick ear, and loving patience. The vision may be supplemented by a good field-glass, and the ear quickened by training, but there is no substitute for intelligent patience.” Hear, hear, Ms. Osgood Wright!
Genevieve ‘Gennie’ Jones
Another remarkable woman who made significant contributions to ornithology is Genevieve “Gennie” Jones (1847-79). Awestruck by Audubon’s Birds of America watercolour drawings, she realized that what was missing from his project were detailed drawings of nests of American birds. Jones decided to draw what she envisioned as a companion piece to Audubon’s Birds of America: a book that documented birds’ nests and eggs.
Tragically, Jones only managed to complete five illustrations before dying of typhoid fever at the age of 32, but her family continued working on the project as a way of honouring her memory. In 1886, seven years after Jones’ death, they published nests of nearly 130 species in Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio. Joy Kiser recently re-introduced the world to Genevieve Jones’ remarkable story and project; Kiser published the illustrations in a volume called America’s Other Audubon.
Spring is in the air which means it’s time to start planning for spring migration. Read more.
Julia Zarankin is a writer, editor, and former professor of Russian literature and culture at the University of Missouri. She's a long-time contributor to ON Nature magazine and our blog.