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Snipe Hunt

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I told my friend to bring his son, and we would go find some cranes to watch.  I said they were not making much noise now since they were already mated and on the nest, but that all of the other birds were making a racket, and the snipe were flying and making their whooping sound.  We would be able to hear them most any time of day.

“Snipe,” he said.  “I heard about snipe hunts when I was kid.  There’s no such thing as a snipe.”  My friend has spent some time in the outdoors, and he does a little hunting each year as do many Montanans.  Like many outdoorsy guys, he learned at a young age about the snipe hunt in which a young boy would be sent into the woods at night with a burlap sack, and told to sit beside a tree and wait for a creature called a snipe.  The critter did not exist, of course, and the hunt for the mythical snipe became almost a rite of passage for young outdoorsmen during the twentieth century.  Summer camp counselors routinely employed this ruse, as did the Boy Scouts, and a whole host of fathers and uncles with sons and nephews learning the ways of the woods.  As a practical joke its popularity seemed universal, and you were considered well on your way to manhood when you learned through the experience of the snipe hunt that there was no such thing as a snipe.

There is, however, such a thing as a snipe, and in some places it is even hunted, albeit with a gun and not a burlap sack.  The Wilson’s Snipe is a small to medium-sized shorebird whose scientific name is Gallinago delicata.  Its short legs and stubby neck distinguish it from other wading birds, and as birds go it is a goofy looking creature.  Hunkered down in the grass alongside a pond it appears to have no neck or legs at all.  This combined with a bill nearly three inches long accounts for its peculiar appearance.  Like the moose, it is one of nature’s creatures that, to the human eye at least, seems a bit odd.

The Wilson’s Snipe was until recently associated with the Common Snipe, a bird found in Eurasia whose Latin name is Gallinago gallinago, but ornithologists have determined that the two birds are different enough for the former to warrant status as a separate species.  This happens with some frequency as scientists use evermore sophisticated tools to study both fauna and flora.  Many plant species, for example, that were formerly categorized according to morphological characteristics have been reassigned to new species using data derived from DNA.  This often results in some confusion, but the confusion is usually of no particular consequence for the average person.  The Wilson’s Snipe still looks like what we used to call the Common Snipe.

Being a secretive bird, the snipe is usually seen only when it is flushed.  It is not generally a bird of open country, so in order to see it one must go into the brush and willows  along the water.  A good pair of hip waders will keep your feet dry, but won’t protect your face and neck from the scrapes and scratches inflicted by the heavy growth in which the Wilson’s Snipe frequently prefers to dwell.  Nor will hip waders keep your heart from jumping into your throat as the bird bursts from its hiding place underfoot.  The snipe possesses an extraordinary patience, and not infrequently will wait until you almost step on it before exploding in front of you.  Even if you know the bird is close at hand you cannot avoid being startled.  Scared witless may be a more appropriate description of your reaction.  It has happened to me dozens of times, and I have always been amazed that a bird that weighs on average six hundred times less than a human being can so frighten that larger creature.  One’s sense of self-control is always in peril, I guess, but fright has kept more than a few people alive throughout the long history of evolution.  Fear is an essential instinct.

Once you regain your sense of control you will have little time to watch the snipe as it disappears through the brush using a zig-zag pattern of flight that is nearly impossible to follow.  How one could ever hit a snipe using a shotgun is beyond my imagination, and I suspect those who do hunt snipe shoot more willows and trees than snipe.  The effort would be like trying to hit a golf ball bouncing on concrete.  Since the snipe would only yield  a bite or two of meat I don’t know why anyone would bother.  Then again we are the species that invented the game of golf, so I suppose if you have some time on your hands anything may qualify as entertainment.

For the most part the Wilson’s Snipe consumes worms, but someone who has more time to spend watching snipe than I do figured that out.  They also feed on larval insects, crustaceans and mollusks, as well as occasional seeds and berries.  The bird feeds in the mud and soft ground along a variety of water ways, and its bill is adapted for ingesting prey while immersed in the muck.  It is able to open the flexible tip of its bill while the entire bill is underground, and spikes on the tongue are then able to pull food into its mouth.  Again, someone with considerable time to spend figured this out, but I have never seen such marvelous things myself.  My daughter, who has worked as a field biologist, says that discovering such things takes a bit of looking, and it’s easier to look if you get paid for it.

She had an uncanny knack for discovering snipe nests when she was young.  Her size allowed her to walk in places I would have had to crawl, and so she seemed able to find nests quite at will.  The nests she found always had four pale brown eggs wreathed with darker spots.   The chicks are precocial, which means they are able to move about on their own soon after emerging from the egg, and it  has been discovered that when the first two eggs hatch the male bird takes them off to raise by himself, and the remaining chicks are raised by the female.  This seems like an equitable deal for both the adults who, it appears, have nothing to do with one another after the eggs are hatched.

For those of us who are not on the payroll the most noticeable thing about the snipe is the noise they make.  You do not have to see a bird to hear it, and many birds are heard often, but rarely seen.  Such is the case with the Wilson’s Snipe.  On the other hand, if you cannot see a bird, and someone is not able to tell you the bird from which a sound emanates, you will not know what you are hearing.

On the breeding ground in spring and early summer the snipe makes two distinctive calls.  One is vocal, the other is mechanical.  The vocal call is a rather plaintive bleating, as one book calls it, and another calls it a “loud wheet-wheet” sound.  I would describe it as a peent-peent sound whereas one of the most recent field guides describes the utterance as a “loud TIKa TIKa TIKa given from perch”,  but none of these descriptions suffices, and I cannot think of one that does.  This problem exists, as I have noted in other essays, in many birds, and there appears to be no way around it.  As is the case for most birds, you have to hear a snipe, or a recording of one, to understand what one sounds like.  In the case of the snipe the vocalization is both distinctive and easy to hear, albeit difficult to describe.

The same holds true for the sound the male snipe makes while in flight.  One source calls it a drumming sound  while two others describe it as a fluttering sound, and yet another as a whooping sound.  None of these efforts quite fills the bill for me, and I am prone to describe it as a drawn out series of hoots without the final t being sounded, as if some small owl were flying overhead calling hoohoohoohoohoohoo.  The sound is made when the bird goes into a short dive, and spreads its thin, curved, outer tail feathers through which the air moves, creating the distinctive fluttering, or whatever one might choose to call it.  The sound is noticeable from a great distance, and not infrequently I am able to hear at one time three birds spread out over close to a mile.  The males do this most frequently in the dusky hours, but it is not uncommon to hear them at any time of day, and I have heard them many times through the bedroom window at one or two in the morning.  It is a most lovely haunting sound to hear and I never get my fill of it.  Occasionally I watch them through binoculars as the swoop and dive, but mostly I go about my business, happy to hear them no matter what else engages me at the moment.  I listen for the first snipe in April as eagerly as I watch for the first bluebird in March.

Two other things are worth noting about the snipe.  The first has to do with its name Gallinago, from the Latin gallo, meaning “a hen”, because as one writer says, the birds are about the same size.  A snipe is about the same size as a hen of the chicken family as a bluebird is about the same size as a duck, and it is best to remember that neither the common or scientific name of any given species is constrained to any relationship with reality.

Secondly, The Birders Handbook contains a two word notation at the end of its section on the diet of snipe.  It says, “Heavy drinker”.  I have reported many marvelous things about the snipe that I have not learned from personal observation, and certainly I have never noticed that they have a fondness for strong drink.  I might have deduced as much from the bird’s erratic flight pattern, but I never did.  I asked my daughter about this, but she says she has never seen a snipe that acted even a little bit tipsy.  She says that someone must have gotten paid a bunch to figure that one out.

So now I have something special to show my friend who doesn’t even believe that such a thing as a snipe exists.  Not only does the Wilson’s Snipe exist, it’s a drunkard to boot.  He should enjoy this when he comes with his son to visit.          


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