Birds – Wilson’s Snipe

(Gallinago delicata)


Length—10.50 to 11.50 inches.

Male and Female—Upper parts varied with black, brown, and buff; crown dusky, with buff stripe; throat white; neck and breast buff, streaked with dusky; underneath white, the sides with blackish bars. Outer feather of wings white; wings brownish black, the feathers barred with reddish brown and margined with white. Tail bay and black, the outer feathers barred with black and white; the inner ones black, marked across the end with rufous and tipped with soiled white. Bill about 2.5o inches long and resembling the woodcock’s.

Range—North America at large, from Hudson Bay and Alaska, south in winter to central and northern South America and the West Indies. Nests in far north chiefly, rarely in the northern United States.

When the first shad run up our rivers to spawn, and the shad bush opens its feathery white blossoms in the roadside thickets in March, the snipe come back from the south to haunt the open wet places of the lowlands, fresh water marshes, soaked fields, and the sheltered sunny spots in a clearing that are the first to thaw. Only in exceptionally dry seasons do these birds go near salt water marshes. Generally speaking, snipe prefer more open country than woodcock; but plenty of the former have been ‘flushed in bush-grown, springy woods—the woodcock’s paradise when the lowlands become flooded. The russet colors and markings of these birds, that so perfectly mimic their surroundings as they lie close, conceal them from all but the sharpest eyes. We may know of their arrival by the clusters of holes in the mud; for both snipe and woodcock have the habit of thrusting their bills into the soft ground up to the nostrils, feeling for worms as they probe with the sensitive tip whose upper half is flexible and capable of hooking the earthworm from its hole. As the snipe’s eyes are set far back in its head, it must be guided only by the sense of touch. The larvae of insects and insects themselves are found by overturning old leaves and decayed wood; but most of this bird’s food must be probed for. Martin Luther was not the only one to profit by a Diet of Worms!

While comparatively few nests are built in the United States, most of the love making is done here, and one of the characteristic spring sounds in districts frequented by this snipe is the AEolian whistling of its wings at evening, dawn, or by moonlight, when its wooing is done chiefly in mid air. Lighter and more trim of figure than a woodcock, Wilson’s snipe is a better flier, and, rising upward by erratic yet graceful spirals, it attains a height we can only guess at but not see in the dusk; then darting earthward, music thrums and whistles in its wake to charm the ear of the listening sweetheart. It makes ” at each descent a low yet penetrating, tremulous sound,” says Brewster, “which suggests the winnowing of a domestic pigeon’s wings, or, if heard at a distance, the bleating of a goat, and which is thought to be produced by the rushing of the air through the wings of the snipe. . . . Besides this `drumming’ or `bleating,’ as it is called, the snipe, while mating, sometimes make another peculiar sound, a kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kup, evidently vocal, and occasionally accompanying a slow, labored, and perfectly direct flight, at the end of which the bird alights on a tree or fence post a few minutes.”

The flight of a snipe, almost invariably erratic, zig-zag one minute and maybe strong and direct the next, discourages all but the most expert wing shot. Although lying close, and generally flushed in the open, no tyro is quick enough at covering the swift, tortuous flier to bag it. Nervous, excitable, and therefore particularly difficult to hit, poor of flesh and muscular from long travel in the spring migration, nevertheless there are in many states no laws to prevent the killing of these snipe then; and the fact that eggs are already formed in many birds brought to the kitchen has not yet moved the hearts of sportsmen and legislators to action. For the most part, these snipe go north of the United States to lay three or four clay-colored or olive eggs, heavily marked and scratched with chocolate, in a depression in the ground.

When the early frosts of autumn harden the soil at the north, so that the bill can no longer penetrate it, the snipe, migrating by night, again visit us, this time fatter, more lazy, or at any rate less nervous than they were during the mating season. Just as a wet meadow may be full of them some August morning before we are expecting them, so in September the sportsmen go to look for them at dawn where they were the evening before in numbers, to find that they have silently travelled southward during the night. There is always the charm of the unexpected about the snipe’s appearance or disappearance. Like the wood-cock, it is almost nocturnal in habits, because earthworms come to the surface then. Coming out from under cover, where it has dozed the best part of the day, to feed in the open at twilight of morning or evening, it lies close until flushed, when, springing upward from the grass almost at the sportsman’s feet, as if shot out of a spring trap, and startling the novice out of a good aim by its hoarse, rasping scaip, scaip, it stands a good chance of escaping, thanks to its swift zigzag course.