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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Wilson's Snipe

Gallinago delicata ORDER: CHARADRIIFORMES FAMILY: SCOLOPACIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Though the long tradition of “snipe hunt” pranks at summer camp has convinced many people otherwise, Wilson’s Snipes aren’t made-up creatures. These plump, long-billed birds are among the most widespread shorebirds in North America. They can be tough to see thanks to their cryptic brown and buff coloration and secretive nature. But in summer they often stand on fence posts or take to the sky with a fast, zigzagging flight and an unusual “winnowing” sound made with the tail.

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Keys to identification Help

Shorebirds
Shorebirds
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Wilson’s Snipes are medium-sized, pudgy shorebirds with short, stocky legs. The bill is straight and very long (several times the length of the head). The head is rounded and the tail is short.

  • Color Pattern

    These birds are intricately patterned in buff and brown stripes and bars. The dark head has prominent buffy to whitish stripes. The dark back has three long buffy streaks, one running down each edge, one down the center. The buff chest is streaked and spotted with brown; the sides are heavily barred with black. In flight, the wings are dark above and below.

  • Behavior

    Wilson’s Snipes forage by methodically probing in muddy ground for earthworms and other invertebrates. Their heads move up and down somewhat like a sewing machine running at slow speed. Individuals usually sit tight until suddenly flushing near your feet and flying off in fast zigzags. Displaying males fly high in the sky and make a curious whistling noise (“winnowing”), created by air passing over his modified outer tail feathers.

  • Habitat

    Wilson’s Snipe live in muddy pond edges, damp fields, and other wet, open habitats. Typically these contain thick, low vegetation into which these well-camouflaged birds can disappear.

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Similar Species

Similar Species

American Woodcock are of similar size and body shape, but are nearly unmarked below and much less-heavily marked above, particularly lacking the pale longitudinal streaks of Wilson’s Snipe. Their legs are shorter and their bodies even pudgier. Both Short-billed Dowitcher and Long-billed Dowitcher are typically found in areas with more open water, often feeding on mudflats away from vegetation. In winter, dowitchers are gray or gray-brown all over with little in the way of plumage markings, while in summer both species are reddish-orange below and with orange necks and faces. They also lack the long, pale longitudinal streaks on the back.

Find This Bird

The old practical joke of a snipe hunt involves getting someone to wait out in a marsh at night, holding a bag, with promises of flushing a snipe into the bag. We don’t recommend this technique for seeing snipe: a much better way is to look for the birds in open wetlands during spring and summer. Listen and watch for their aerial winnowing displays, performed high in the sky by fast-flying, swooping birds. When they’re not flying, these birds often perch and call from fence posts and other exposed spots. In migration and during winter, carefully scan the edges of muddy ponds, ephemeral pools of rainwater, ditches, small streams, and other such places. As you walk, you might flush a snipe unexpectedly from close by and hear its raspy call as it takes off. These birds tend to be most active around dawn and dusk.