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Life List

One woman’s quest to see as many of the world’s birds as possible.

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For language lovers, it is one of life’s pleasures to encounter those whose names match their professions: Margaret Spellings, the former Secretary of Education; Major Major; John C. Flood, plumber.

The names suggest the pull of destiny. We can easily imagine Rev. Lord’s inevitable slog to the monastery or the pressure of being called Larry Brilliant. (Thank goodness he succeeded).

And then there are those who must be coaxed into their destiny. For 34 years, the only thing that suggested Phoebe Snetsinger would become a celebrated bird-watcher was her name.

“Phoebe” was given to her by her parents, a librarian-turned-housewife and an advertising magnate, because they thought it sounded nice. “Snetsinger” came from her husband, Dave, an Illinois farm boy who eventually climbed the corporate ladder at Purina, specializing in – of all things – chicken feed.

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Swarthmore, Snetsinger stayed home with the couple’s four children, a dedicated but dissatisfied mother who might have served only as a cautionary tale for feminists if, one day in 1965, she hadn’t encountered – in her own backyard – a Blackburnian Warbler.

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