Book Review: Birding On Borrowed Time by Phoebe Snetsinger

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe, Sayornis phoebe

Birding On Borrowed Time, by Phoebe Snetsinger, published by American Birding Association, copyright 2003, 307 pages.

If your non-birder family and friends think you’ve gone off the deep end due to your occasional early morning birding trips, photography, etc., just hand them a copy of this book.  They will see what a real birding obsession looks like and your exploits will pale in comparison to those of this legendary and record-holding icon.  This book is Phoebe Snetsinger’s autobiography of a birder’s life, lived to the extreme and ended tragically with binoculars in hand.  She was the first person to see 8,000 species of birds and at the time of her death she held the lister record.

White Ibis,

White Ibis, Eudocimus albus

It all started innocently enough.  She was a too busy, tired, 34 year-old housewife and mother of four, starving for something new and exciting when her friend took her birding in the local woods. Her first sighting through the binoculars was a beautiful male Blackburnian Warbler in its finest spring garb.  She was smitten for life.  Her birding competency and experience quickly grew and in a dozen years she held the record in her area by seeing 275 local species in one year.  Guided domestic trips to Maine, Texas, Florida, and Arizona were soon supplemented with her first trips abroad to Mexico and then to the Galapagos and Ecuador.

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole, Icterus galbula

At age 41 Phoebe had a malignant melanoma removed from her back, but the margins were clear and she thought she was cured.  Nine years later she noticed a growing lump in her axilla which was shown to be metastatic melanoma.  Her prognosis was for 3 months of normal living, then an inexorable downward spiral and death within a year.  The book describes her shock, denial, and temporary depression, but also her later revival and fight to make the last days memorable.  Her motto became Carpe Diem.

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike, Lanius ludovicianus

In the epilogue the author’s son wondered if his mother’s records would have ever been established if she did not have the Damocles Sword of melanoma recurrence hanging over her for much of her adult life.  After the first recurrence and the specter of imminent death, she set out doing what she loved most, birding.  When death did not come and her bird sightings mounted, her competitive streak kicked in.  Setting the all-time record of 8,000 birds then seemed possible. Two more subsequent recurrences of the disease at 5 year intervals did nothing but accelerate her birding pace and lead to more frequent international trips to birding hotspots.  As she approached the mark, the difficulties of finding these rarer birds increased geometrically leading her to almost inaccessible rain forests, mountaintops, and deserts.  The time, physical toll, and cost of seeing each new bird rose significantly, just when Phoebe’s age made each trip more difficult.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus

This book mentions, but does not dwell upon the risks, costs, and calamities of world-wide birding.  Long trips, often a dozen or more per year, took a physical and emotional toll on her and her family.  She was brutally raped in New Guinea, attacked by spear-throwing tribesmen, broke her wrist, sprained her knee, survived at least two emergency airplane landings, an earthquake, and even a shipwreck in Indonesia.  She was aware of her obsession but didn’t back off her pace, no matter where it took her.  I frequently found myself shaking my head and wondering at some of Phoebe’s foolhardy decisions and risk-taking, but that is exactly why she, and not I, set the record.

California Thrasher

California Thrasher, Toxostoma redivivum

Although the book has some human interest for non-birders, it is probably best suited for the birder, given the long lists of birds and sites on all the continents.  The book’s real value for me was the lessons this iconic woman has left for birders.  Let me summarize them:

  1. Despite her becoming the all-time lister, she clearly found great joy in observing, and not just counting, birds–even ones already ticked off her list.  Phoebe rightly noted the “wonderful warm feeling of fulfillment all birders feel” when seeing a life bird after a long search.  She appreciated the folly of birding with a guide who quickly calls out the new bird names while the lister spends more time taking notes than observing the birds.  She adamantly refused to list birds that were heard but not seen.
  2. She recognized the utility of playing birdsongs to attract and observe the rarities of the world.  She was birding in the early days of this technique when the birders carried the cumbersome tape recorders miles into the bush.  Today we just use our smart phones.
  3. She spent many hours of preparation before each trip, getting acquainted with the target birds in the area.  Although she was not a photographer she would keep copious notes and records of her observations and field marks, building a vast filing system at home, all before the days of eBird which has made our record keeping so much easier today.
  4. She recognized the value of learning the Latin genus and species names of the birds, and not just the common names that often vary per culture.  Of the two Latin names, the genus is the more important, especially when identifying new birds.  Remember that many of these remote countries had not yet developed birding guidebooks, reference materials, or even adequate maps.  If you could at least place the unknown bird in a genus and remember its key field marks, you could eventually make the ID.  Some of the birds she saw had just recently been discovered and not yet named.
  5. For Phoebe a knowledge of the taxonomy of the avian world was important.  Seeing how each new bird fit into the hierarchy was part of birding’s appeal for her as she tried find at least one bird from each of the 2153 genera.  She almost fulfilled this dream.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

Phoebe Snetsinger was an obsessive, quirky, and intelligent woman, who overcame amazing obstacles to reach her birding goals.  She died at age 68 doing what she loved most when her bus overturned on the backroads of Madagascar pursuing the next bird.  Her last life bird was the Red-shouldered Vanga, number 8,398.

Book Review: H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald



H Is For Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, published by Grove Press, New York, copyright 2014, 283 pages.

It was one of those nights, becoming more frequent now, when I laid wide awake at 2 AM.  When this happens I reach over to the night stand, turn on the dim light, and grab whatever book or magazine I touch first.  Reading usually puts me back to sleep. This time it was an old New Yorker.  I started at the back to avoid those long current event articles in the front that I rarely agree with, and checked out the cartoon competition and then the book reviews. The title of the review, Rapt, Grieving With Your Goshawk, by Kathryn Schultz caught my eye–I had just finished my review and post of The Goshawk by T.H. White.  The coincidence grew as I read Schultz’s review of H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, which itself is in part a review and commentary of T.H. White’s life and writings, including The Goshawk.  It seemed like a sign.  After a quick Amazon download to my Kindle, I was off and reading another hawk book and well into it by dawn’s early light.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

The author was a young graduate student in the history of science at Cambridge who recently lost her father to an unexpected cardiac death.  This book is a skillful weaving of three themes:  her personal grieving and situational depression and eventual recovery, the acquisition and training of a goshawk named Mabel, and a commentary of the life and works of T.H. White, the earlier 20th century author who was also a falconer and naturalist, and also struggled with depression. H Is For Hawk won the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction and the Costa Book of the Year prize.

Helen Macdonald’s father was a free lance photographer and former plane-spotter as a child.  His lessons of patient observation and sky-watching led to her unusual and precocious interest in birds, raptors, and falconry.  As a child she had already read White’s The Goshawk, Blaine’s Falconry, and all the related texts needed to master this art.  Prior to her fathers death she had already trained kestrels, merlins, and peregrines and was a former falcon breeder for the United Arab Emirates.

Peregrine Falcon with recent kill

Peregrine Falcon with recent kill

Why train a goshawk now with her grief so fresh and raw, and why a goshawk?  Its an uncommon, secretive, wild, and difficult hawk to train.  Just “looking for a goshawk is like looking for grace; you don’t get to say when or how.”  But its also the bird that T.H. White acquired when he sought to retreat from humankind and kindle his own feral self.  She was experiencing those same impulses.  As she relates the fascinating training of her young goshawk Mabel, she compares and contrasts her techniques with the love/hate relationship between White and his Gos.  But as this training goes on the reader senses the author’s growing alienation with humankind and identification with the bird, and her deepening depression.  The bills aren’t paid, mail and calls not returned, and human contact avoided.  As a reader I felt like an observer of a train-wreck in slow motion, not sure I wanted to see how this all ended, but the compelling writing kept me going to witness the recovery.

Black Kite

Black Kite

Midway through the book there is the memorable scene when Mabel is given her freedom to fly without constraints for the first time.  Remember this is a hawk bred and fledged by humans, never previously released to the wild.  Helen is “practically catatonic…this is ridiculous…I don’t want to be here…Oh!  And I let her go.  And immediately I wish I had not.  Suddenly my hawk is free”.  When the hawk does not immediately return to the fist Helen is devastated, “My beating, horrified heart, and my soul feeling like water at four degrees; heavier than ice, falling to the bottom of the ocean.  And suddenly she is back on the glove, I feel soaked in ice water, and I cannot believe she is not lost.  I feel like White:  a tyro, a fool, a beginner, an idiot.”

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

The first step in recovery is recognition of the illness.  At some point the author disagrees with the naturalists like Muir who celebrate becoming one with nature and one with the birds.  Most have a “little splinter of wildness” while coming home, having dinner, and participating in humanity.  But she realizes, “I don’t have both sides.  I only have wildness.  And I don’t need wildness any more…Human hands are for holding other hands.  Human arms are for holding other humans close.”  She wonderfully relates this process of repair and restoration, the role of her mother, the memorial service, her friends, professional help, and medication, eventually leading to the point of separating from her beloved Mabel during the long molting phase of spring.  After all, she has her own spring revival to tend to.

I don’t believe my short review does justice to this affecting and fascinating book.  Please refer to the Kathryn Schulz review in the March 9, 2014 New Yorker for a more in depth analysis, or better yet, read H Is For Hawk.  You won’t be sorry.


Book Review: The Goshawk by T.H. White

Peregrine Falcon, sorry, I do not have a photo of a Goshawk, but the Peregrine is a close but smaller cousin.

Peregrine Falcon. Sorry, I do not have a photo of a Goshawk.

The Goshawk, by T.H. White, published by the New York Review of Books, copyright 1951, 215 pages, introduction by Marie Winn.

I was browsing in the local bookstore, in the birds and wildlife section, when I saw this small paperback tucked on the bottom shelf between the large well known guides.  I tend to favor the smaller books and picked it up, but almost put it back when I discovered it was about falconry, published years ago.  No self-respecting birder would condone the enslavement of hawks, let alone pay good money to read an account of the practice from 1951.  Yet something I read on the back cover or introduction gave me pause and I made the purchase, and am glad I did.

T.H. White was an young Englishman, recently retired as an English professor and starting a literary career in 1936 when he wrote this book.  He had become a Thoreau-like recluse, living alone in a gamekeeper’s cottage, “tired of most humans”, when he received the fledging goshawk by mail-order from Germany.  The book is his non-fiction log of the training of the bird named Gos, using two dated manuals, one written in 1619, as his only guides.  It is a battle of wills, hawk vs. human, with the final result very much in doubt.  It is also the musings of an observant and perceptive naturalist with a discussion of the art and history of falconry, and what he learned about these willful birds and himself.

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Red-Shouldered Hawk

The Northern Goshawk is the largest accipiter of North America, primarily seen in the northern forests.  Its name is derived from the Old English words gos (goose) and hafoc (hawk). It was known in ancient times as the “Bird of Apollo” and its symbol was worn by Attilia the Hun, testifying to the bird’s fierceness and power.  According to White the “hawks are sensitive to the eye and do not like to be regarded–it is their prerogative to regard.”  These characteristics make it one of the more difficult raptors to train for falconry, a lesson learned late by the author. The book briefly describes falconry as an ancient art and sport, primarily of the nobles, dating back to Mesopotamia 3000 years ago and reaching its peak in Medieval Europe.  In typical English fashion, a hierarchy of raptors was allowed to the falconer or austringer depending on ones class; an eagle for an emperor, a peregrine for an earl, a goshawk for a yeoman, and a kestrel for a knave.

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

The book has only two characters of note, the author and Gos.   Its charm stems from the detailed description of their evolving relationship during the arduous, frustrating, and laborious training of this wild bird, spanning 3 months of days, and often sleepless nights.  Who will crack first, man or bird?  The author noted that his admiration of the skills of mothers and demands of motherhood grew from the experience.

During the training the bird was restrained by jesses or leather straps around the ankles, holding him initially by a short leash to a perch or the falconer’s padded arm. The early days consisted of frequent tantrums or “batings” of the wild bird.  Batings are “the headlong dive of rage and terror, by which a leashed hawk leaps from the fist in a wild bid for freedom, and hangs upside down by his jesses in a flurry of pinions like a chicken being decapitated, revolving, struggling, in danger of damaging his primaries.  It was the falconer’s duty to lift the hawk back to the fist with his other hand with gentleness and patience, only to have him bate again, once, twice, twenty, fifty times, all night…”.  The final breaking of the bird’s will and its acceptance of its human master required, according to the ancient lore, 72 hours of sleeplessness, enforced by the also sleepless trainer, nudging the bird awake, until the bird finally relaxes it feathers, droops it wings, drops its head, and succumbs to sleep, even in the presence of its new human master.  After this ordeal the formal training could begin.

Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle

“Manning” the bird involved gradually introducing the bird to the outside world, including other humans, automobiles, dogs, and other birds. The author calmly stroked the bird through each of these inevitable batings caused by new worldly contacts, and verbally soothed Gos with the frequent recitation of the hymn, Lord, My Shepherd.  White would walk the countryside for miles with Gos on his arm, and even taught the bird to perch on the handle bars of the bicycle for longer trips.  The tired falconer’s patience however had it limits as evidenced by the various nick-names asssigned to Gos through the process;  Hittite, Absalom, insane assassin, Caligula, filthy bugger, and choleric beast. Gradually the leash was lengthened and Gos could test his wings, even up to several hundred feet.  The author learned the key to enticing the bird to return to the wrist was through his stomach.  Overfeeding and overuse of food as a reward was to be avoided as William Shakespeare relates in The Taming of the Shrew:

My falcon is now sharp and passing empty;

And, till she stoop, she must not be full-gorged,

For then she never looks upon her lure.

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

One finds multiple themes in this book.  One is freedom vs. enslavement;  the soaring hawk is a symbol of freedom, but when man captures it, breaks its spirit, and uses it for its own aims, nature is corrupted.  Then there’s the theme of teacher vs. pupil, or parent vs. child and the need for the instructor’s loving patience and persistence, no matter what.  I recommend this book to all who find the subject of interest; the writing is superb.  I will not give away the outcome of this adventure, other than to say life is not always as we wish it to be.  The author goes on to train multiple other birds, but in closing, sadly quotes the old proverb, “When your first wife dies, she makes such a hole in your heart that all the rest slip through”.

 Other books by T.H. White include:  The Once and Future King, The Sword in the Stone, The Book of Merlyn, and The Queen of Air and Darkness.