International Women’s Day, last Friday, presents an ideal opportunity to celebrate illustrious women birders. The remarkable 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 at all. 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. Alas, that’s about where our similarities end.
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 last Friday, 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!
Please let me know if you have other remarkable women birders to add to the list!
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.