Monday, February 08, 2010

Reviews: Feathered Obsessions

I love identifying and observing birds, but I admit that I've never been interested in competitive listing--ticking off bird species seen for the purposes of amassing a long "life list." In its most extreme forms, listing seems to reduce the beauty of birds to mere tokens to be collected, while ignoring their habits and the stunning places they inhabit.

Most birds about competitive listing similarly leave me cold; these stories too seem more about numbers than birds.

But not this one: Olivia Gentile's Life List is a compelling portrait of Phoebe Snetsinger, a woman who took to birding to escape a life she considered mundane, and from there became the first person to see 8000 of the world's bird species.

Snetsinger makes a fascinating character. As a young woman in the '50s she aspired to be a scientist, but instead fell into the expected roles of housewife and mother. She turned to birding as an escape, becoming ever more passionate about recording birds she'd seen.

In 1981, at the age of 49, diagnosed with cancer and given a year to live, Snetsinger set out on a string of international birding tours to see as many species as she could before she died. She lived another 18 years--and in that time accumulated a life list larger than any other birder.

Gentile presents a complex story of a complex individual. It's hard to not admire Snetsinger, a woman who at times braves terrible conditions and rugged travel to add a few birds to her list. But the other side of obsession is also here: the toll on her husband and children, the increasingly competitive nature of her birding, the neglect of her mental health following a horrific assault on a birding trip in New Guinea.

Best of all, Gentile also captures the genuine thrills of seeing new birds in their habitat. This ultimately, is not a story about numbers, but of birds--and the great places birds can take us.
Falconers have their own breed of feathered obsession. The art of hunting game with trained birds of prey is an ancient pastime, and given the inherent difficulties of training a raptor coupled with the strict regulations and apprenticeship process, it's nearly impossible to be a casual falconer.

Rachel Dickinson's Falconer on the Edge is her attempt to understand what drives falconers in their passion. Married to falconer Tim Gallagher--the writer and naturalist who rediscovered the ivory-billed woodpecker--she decided to learn about her husband's passion by spending time with one of the sport's most fanatic devotees.

Steve Chindgren flies his falcons on sage grouse at least five days a week in the autumn and winter near his cabin in Wyoming. Sage grouse hawking is considered one of the most beautiful and difficult forms of falconry.

In her book, Dickinson captures the many elements that add up to make a falconer--the raptors, of course, but also the sage grouse, the land, the regulations, the camaraderie.

As any book involving sage grouse today must be, it's also about conservation--especially as so many of Chindgren's hawking grounds are overtaken by energy development on Wyoming's sagebrush country.

Falconers have a long history of conservation, including the highly successful restoration of peregrine falcon populations. They pursue conservation with the same obsessive nature as they do hunting.

Falconers have already become heavily involved in sage grouse conservation, in places like Idaho's Crooked Creek. We'll continue to need their help as we work to stem the decline of sage grouse populations.

Obsession can mean many things, not all of them positive. But a close connection with the natural world--be it through birding or falconry or another activity--inarguably also makes the strongest conservationists. --Matt Miller

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