Thursday, April 29, 2010

Might as well face it, you're addicted to birds

Drugs, alcohol, gambling...birds??

I just finished reading "Life List" by Olivia Gentile, a biography of big-listing birder Phoebe Snetsinger, who was the first person to see over 8,000 species of birds. The book describes how Phoebe, who had been an intelligent student hoping for a science career, changed course (it was the 1950s) and went for marriage and motherhood instead. The dreariness of being a stay-at-home mom was alleviated when she discovered birding, enchanted by a Blackburnian warbler that a birding friend pointed out.

Phoebe soon took to the pasttime, accruing a nice local life list where the Snetsingers settled in Saint Louis and becoming an active member of a local nature studies club. Her restlessness was not completely cured, however; she felt trapped by her daily life, wrote depressing poetry, and dreamed of running away to the jungle.

Then a cancer scare, in which she was told that she only had a few months to live, propelled her to accelerate her birding travel. She began going on trips all over the world, even as her cancer went into remission. She saw more and more birds, and other people from the trips remember her enthusiasm and helpfulness to other birders.

Just when she had announced that she would slow her pace again, she was attacked and raped by a gang of thugs in Papua New Guinea. Although Phoebe consistently downplayed the effect this had on her, the author of the biography sees this is a turning point in Phoebe's life: instead of scaling back the birding, she accelerated it, putting herself through grueling physical ordeals,going to places that were known to be dangerous or politically unstable, alienating her family, missing her mother's funeral and her daughter's wedding in the pursuit of more birds. Birding friends reported that as her obsession progressed, she became more critical and seemed to enjoy herself less. If she didn't get her "target birds" on a trip, she couldn't be happy. Finally, almost twenty years after she was supposed to have died of cancer, she was killed in a bus accident on a birding trip to Madagascar.

It's hard to know exactly what to make of Phoebe Snetsinger. The author makes the case that women's limited opportunities in Phoebe's generation probably turned a wholesome hobby into an obsession, stating that if Phoebe had been able to pursue a career, she wouldn't have needed to overcompensate so much with birding. But the author is not a birder.

I think that sexism does enter the picture in some ways -- a lot of people would probably find Phoebe's quest weird, even off-putting, in a way that they might not in big-listing male birders. It's more accepted for men to pursue adventure, dedicate themselves to only one goal, put themselves in physical danger and neglect their family. Women who do this are often judged more harshly, even now. And women who chose to do this are less well known than their adventurous male counterparts -- Lawrence of Arabia and David Livingstone being much better known than Gertrude Bell and Alexandra David-Neel, for example.

So although there was definitely sexism in Phoebe's era (and our own), and she may have resented it, I don't think that is what drove her to bird. As a birder myself, I think it's safe to say that the pleasures of birding drove her to bird.

Birding, you see, is like other addictive behaviors: it makes you feel better. It helps you forget your troubles. When a birder is birding -- looking for birds, listening to them, getting them in the binoculars -- all the problems of life seem further behind. But it doesn't last. Once you get home, tally your list for the day, add your life birds to your life list, the "high" wears off, and you're back where you started -- just like drugs or alcohol or all the other things that can get people into trouble. And just like drug users build up a tolerance, so do birders -- you saw 56 species today? Then you want to see more tomorrow! And you know you're really addicted when you risk your well-being to get your "high," be it by hanging out in an alley in the hood to get your crack, or going to a war-torn country to get an endemic species.

Does that make birding bad? Well, I don't think so -- but then I'm also addicted to birds, without Phoebe Snetsinger's inheritance to support my "habit." The important thing is to keep it fun -- if you don't see the birds you want, enjoy the birds you see.

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