Phoebe Snetsinger: A Pioneer in Birdwatching

birdwatchingTaking up birdwatching as a hobby in the 1960s and making notable waves in the community by 1970, Phoebe Snetsinger’s love for these beautiful creatures evolved into a passion after she was diagnosed with melanoma in 1981. Given less than a year to live, birdwatching gave her a new lease on life.

Defying her diagnosis, she lived for more than 18 years. She spent more time in jungles, mountains and other wild areas than home. There were numerous setbacks, though, as her cancer reoccurred every five years or so, only to go into remission again. In the end, her love of birds always overcame her illness.

Learn how the Alamo EDC does its part to nurture, develop and embrace ecotourism for birdwatchers. We help the community, economy and nature lovers everywhere.

Most Birds Sighted

In 1970, her love of birds started progressing and ended up reaching the point of her holding the record for having witnessed the most local bird species. At that time, there were about 8,500 species compared to the 10,000 when she passed away in 1999. She had seen and identified 85% of the known species in the world and was the first person to observe over 8,000!

Snetsinger’s memoir, 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.”


Although often compared to collecting stamps or baseball cards, birdwatching can be competitive and extreme. Snetsinger became a part of this category of birdwatchers, often called big listers, who do more than observe birds in the wild; they also want to spot every bird possible.

Birding is the fastest growing outdoor activity in America, with U.S. and Wildlife Services reporting over 51 million American birdwatchers. People of all ages can watch birds. It’s an activity you can do all of your life in any part of the world. Perhaps that’s what Snetsinger found comfort in and you can as well.

Why Birdwatch?

Why would you birdwatch? Birdwatching creates a contention with the immense beauty of nature. It brings a level of satisfaction that invokes our sense of “hunting”. It will also get you away from staying camped up indoors all day. With some good outdoor adventuring while looking to spot your favorite bird, you won’t notice all of the exercise you’re getting!

Seeking out birds is also associated with the quest for knowledge, not just for bird names, but also about their behavior, songs and how they relate to nature. In fact, because of these quests for knowledge, amateur birders often make contributions to scientific knowledge.

And why birds? Birds have always delighted people all over the world because of their distinct beauty and their ability for flight. For many centuries, people looked to birds to bring them information on love, health, prosperity and more. Today, birds can still carry powerful messages. Their populations and flight patterns help us understand weather patterns and the health of our environment.

Her Legacy at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

Snetsinger’s legacy will live on with birdwatchers around the world. She contributed to a hobby that is enjoyed every day by millions of people all around the world. And what’s even more amazing is that you can do it too at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Alamo.

With 2,088 acres and over 14 miles of trails that visitors can walk and enjoy wildlife tours on, Santa Ana has often been referred to as the “jewel” of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Here you can find over 400 bird species to get you started on your birdwatching endeavor. You can even contribute to the Cornell Lab Ornithology’s eBird Tracker for any birds you encounter at the park.

By visiting the refuge, you’ll be able to witness nature and experience adventures that birdwatchers find so thrilling. By getting an idea of which birds to watch out for and a pair of binoculars (that can be borrowed from the park), you will be on your way to being a birdwatcher like Phoebe Snetsinger!

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