- Birding on Borrowed Time
I am more a watcher of people and less of birds, and that is why I chose to review this book, which is written by and about the life of an obsessive bird-watcher, Phoebe Snetsinger. I wanted to figure out what made her obsessed with watching birds, and I wondered if there was something wrong with me that I did not have an all-consuming passion like she did. In 1995, Snetsinger accomplished the impressive and amazing feat of being the first human ever to see with her own eyes 8,000 of the 10,000-plus species of birds that exist on our planet. She had inherited money from her parents that allowed her the extensive crisscrossing of the globe that this feat required.
You've heard of extreme sports. On a recent Sunday I was watching on television motorcyclists who rode over ramps and flipped 360 degrees in the air. My son explained to me about Bruce, the winner of this event: "Over the last four years Bruce broke his back twice and his legs several times and has won this competition every year." I could see from the beaming expression on Bruce's face after winning the event again that the dangers and broken bones were far from his mind at this moment of victory. There is a parallel here with Phoebe Snetsinger: she is what I would call an extreme birder. She, too, had her bones broken on her birding adventures; as well, while birding in foreign countries she was raped, was on a boat that sank, went into countries undergoing revolutions, [End Page 449] and eventually died in a bus accident. When she traveled to Colombia, her daughter and friends warned her of the dangers there, but she was deaf to their fears. To reach the 8,000 species of birds, she endured steep cliffs, high altitudes, rough terrain, and tramping through knee-deep mud. Yet through all of these hardships, her joy at seeing yet another species to add to her list comes through. The endlessness of birding also appealed to her: "One of the wonderful aspects of birding is that it is endless. There's always, as long as one lives, some new place to go, some exciting new thing to find. No one knowledgeable will ever say, 'I've done it all—now what?'" (260).
I wondered as I read her book if Snetsinger were alone in being driven to see most of the birds of the world. A review of recent birding books makes it clear there are other obsessed birders out there. One is Peter Cashwell. In The Verb "To Bird" (2003), he writes: "Birding may be as easily considered a medical disorder as a passion of the heart. It is an intellectual passion and an emotional passion. Adding a new species to your life list is like a quick checkmate" (17), and that "Birding is not a hobby. It is not something one chooses to do so much as something one cannot help but do. Maybe it's divinely inspired, maybe it's a passion uprising in the breast, maybe it's simply a form of obsessive compulsive disorder" (24). I would see it more akin to an addiction than to an obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Another book that gives perspective on Birding on BorrowedTime is Birders: Tales of a Tribe (2002), by the British ornithologist, Mark Cocker. On the cover, the editor describes Cocker as "a member of a community of obsessional people who sacrifice most of their spare time, a good deal of money, sometimes their chances of a partner or family, even occasionally their lives, to watch birds." While Cocker is similarly obsessed, his writing style is more engaging than Snetsinger's because instead of a focus on counting birds, Cocker describes the process of his discovery of birding and the many interesting characters and stories he has encountered. This process leads him to feeling that he is part of the tribe of birders. If Snetsinger experienced being part...