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Hawthorn Woods Builds Garden Honoring World-Record-Setting Local Birder

Phoebe Snetsinger: Someone You Should Know

Article by Christina Sikorski

Photography by Stephen Neilson and Provided

Originally published in SW Lake Lifestyle

A charming 2016 Google Doodle honored a world-record-setting ornithologist on what would have been her 85th birthday, celebrating her as the first person to document 8,000+ birds in the wild. This world-famous birder was a local high school valedictorian (then called Ela Vernon High School) who would shatter records that no woman, and few men, had even approached.

You should know of Phoebe Snetsinger, whose life’s passion was birding. To reach her milestone to be first to locate and identify 8,000 birds, Snetsinger traveled to every continent, sometimes risking her own life. (For perspective, there are just 900 species of birds in North America.)

Living in Lake County and attending school in Lake Zurich, Phoebe was the daughter of librarian Naomi Burnett and advertising giant Leo Burnett, whose namesake company created branding icons like the Jolly Green Giant, the Pillsbury Doughboy, and Tony the Tiger. Phoebe married Dave Snetsinger and went on to have four children.

Snetsinger's interest in birds began in her mid-30s when a neighbor introduced her to birding. In her memoir, Birding on Borrowed Time, she writes that the beauty of a Blackburn Warbler "nearly knocked me over with astonishment and quite simply hooked me forever… perhaps all the more powerful because of its belated entry into my life."

Snetsinger was an enthusiastic birder who took meticulous notes, color-coded and geographically referenced on 3x5 index cards. Soon her hobby started taking more and more of her time.

Shortly before her 50th birthday, Snetsinger received news that would change her life: she was diagnosed with terminal melanoma and given one year to live. At the time, there was no effective and proven treatment, so Snetsinger moved forward with a planned trip to Alaska to find and observe new birds for her “life list.” When she returned home, her cancer was in remission.

Snetsinger would go on to live another eighteen years and travel the world in her urgent quest to document as many birds as possible. It was a race to the top.

In her book, she wrote about the internal fire kindled by her diagnosis: "Occasionally I thought about all these incredible experiences I'd have missed if my melanoma had behaved according to prediction—which of course motivated me all the more to keep moving. I think I began about this time to feel that I was maybe out-running the disease. Somehow I developed a feeling of virtual invincibility once I was on a plane heading toward new places and new birds; I was leaving the threat behind."

From her diagnosis in 1981 until her death in 1999, she faced her mortality head-on and smashed record-after-record; her tireless preparation and research proved critical to the birding world in a time well before computerized databases or even updated field guides and manuals existed.

During her travels, Snetsinger endured recurrences of her cancer, broken bones, a shipwreck, a kidnapping, and a brutal physical attack. She ultimately died in an auto accident in Madagascar while pursuing another amazing bird.

In the epilogue to her memoir, her son Thomas wrote, "She went out, as she had always hoped, at the very top of her game, in the middle of doing what she most loved to do."

Where others would have stopped or course-corrected, Snetsinger never gave up. Remarkably, Snetsinger accomplished this in a time when competitive drive was not seen favorably in women; all the other birders marching toward those important milestones were men.

She wrote, "The birding game was indeed beginning to become intensely competitive for me.... Both Satchel Paige, the baseball player, and my extraordinarily successful father warned: 'Never look back -- someone might be gaining on you!'"

Snetsinger is back in the news locally because a memorial garden is being built in Hawthorn Woods Community Park to honor her legacy. The idea started when Shari Gullo was researching township history for the Ela Peace Project. The more Gullo learned about Snetsinger, the more fascinated she became.

“I’m just in awe of her,” Gullo said. “It is so appropriate to have a garden in Phoebe’s memory to attract birds. No other woman had reached the 8,000-bird milestone, and she did this before the Internet and with all these things happening to her. She still persevered and survived.”

Gullo partnered with Pam Newton, Chief Operating Officer for the Village of Hawthorn Woods, and landscape architect Pamela Self to carve out a bucolic area and design a garden filled with native plants to attract birds. After learning the history from Gullo, Self was eager to help. “When you hear Phoebe’s whole history and know the story, it makes sense to bring it to people’s attention.”

Barrington High School student Kyle Wanca made the garden his Eagle Scout project and has been working closely with Self, the Village of Hawthorn Woods, and other community leaders to prepare the site. “I hope the community will have the opportunity to go see the garden and enjoy it," he said.

Self explained that Hawthorn Woods has already made great strides in their conservation efforts; this project moves that vision forward. “The spot we picked is a natural setting. People can see it from the path. With mature trees already established, especially the Hawthorn trees, the pollinator plants we are choosing will provide a food source for the birds,” she said. The hope is to nurture and watch the garden bloom, with pollinators and birds returning year-after-year.

Ready to start your own life list of birds? Download the Merlin Bird ID app from the Cornell Lab. With a few clicks, you can identify birds by size, color, location, and vocalizations. Audio recordings allow you to recognize and call birds in their own language. One example: the call of a blue jay sounds like its name—"jay-jay-jay!"

You may not get to 8,000 birds, but you can enjoy the beautiful Hawthorn Woods setting while imagining the garden’s namesake in her floppy hat and sturdy shoes, binoculars in hand, ready for learning and adventure. Thomas Snetsinger closed his mother’s memoir with her motto: "Carpe diem!"

  • Pamela Self
  • Kyle Wanca
  • Shari Gullo
  • Phoebe Snetsinger
  • Wood chip mulch, ready for the garden's construction.
  • Self, Gullo and Wanca near one of the birdhouses bordering the future garden site.
  • Self, Wanca and Gullo under a hawthorn tree near the future garden site.
  • A Blackburnian Warbler originally inspired Snetsinger's passion for birding. (Photo by Matt Tillet, shared via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.