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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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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
10.6–12.6 in
27–32 cm
Wingspan
16.1–17.3 in
41–44 cm
Weight
2.8–5.1 oz
79–146 g
Relative Size
About the size of a Killdeer, but heavier-bodied and less lanky.
Other Names
  • Common Snipe
  • Bécassine de Wilson (French)
  • Agachona común, Becasina chillona (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Wilson’s Snipe look so stocky thanks in part to the extra-large pectoral (breast) muscles that make up nearly a quarter of the bird’s weight—the highest percent of all shorebirds. Thanks to their massive flight muscles this chunky sandpiper can reach speeds estimated at 60 miles an hour.
  • Wilson’s Snipe feed by burying their bills deep into soft, wet soil to probe for insect larvae, worms, and other invertebrate prey. The bill’s flexible tip can open to grasp food while the base of the bill stays closed. Snipe can slurp small prey from the mud without having to remove their bill from the soil.
  • Because a Wilson’s Snipe’s eyes are set far back on its head, it can see almost as well behind as in front and to the sides. This arrangement makes it difficult for a potential predator to sneak up on a feeding snipe—it almost literally has “eyes in the back of its head.”
  • The word “sniper” originated in the 1770s among British soldiers in India who hunted snipe as game. The birds are still hunted in many countries, including the U.S., though their fast, erratic flight style means they are difficult targets.
  • Although only the female tends the eggs and nestlings, Wilson’s Snipe parents split up the siblings once they’re ready to fledge. The male takes the two oldest; the female takes the younger two with her. After they leave the nest the mates have no further contact.
  • Researchers have done wind tunnel tests with Wilson’s Snipe feathers to try and duplicate the “winnowing” sound that’s made as birds fly with their tail feathers fanned. They found that it’s the outermost tail feathers, or rectrices, that generate the sound, which apparently happens at airspeeds of about 25 miles per hour.
  • The oldest known Wilson’s Snipe was 9 years, 3 months old, based on a band recovered from a bird that was shot in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.

Habitat


Marsh

Wilson’s Snipes can be found in all types of wet, marshy settings, including bogs, fens, alder and willow swamps, wet meadows, and along rivers and ponds. They avoid areas with tall, dense vegetation, but need patches of cover to hide in and to provide a safe lookout for predators. In the western U.S., look for Wilson’s Snipes in wetlands with sedges, rushes, and cattails, including wet pastures and other agricultural fields. In the South, Wilson’s Snipes winter in rice and sugarcane fields.

Food


Insects

Wilson’s Snipes feed mainly on insect larvae, including flies such as crane, horse and deer flies as well as beetles, dragonflies, crickets, grasshoppers, ants, mayflies, butterflies, caddis flies and moths. Other invertebrate prey include snails, crustaceans, and worms. Wilson’s Snipes use their flexible bills to probe for food in wet soil and can swallow small prey without having to pull their bill from the soil. They occasionally eat small vertebrates including lizards, frogs, fish, and nestling birds. Plant materials make only a minor contribution to their diets.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–4 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
1.4–1.7 in
3.5–4.3 cm
Egg Width
1–1.2 in
2.6–3 cm
Incubation Period
18–20 days
Nestling Period
1 days
Egg Description
Olive brown splotched with dark brown, black or purple.
Condition at Hatching
Active, covered with tan to chestnut down blotched with black, with a white streak on crown and over eye. The chicks leave the nest on the day of hatching.
Nest Description

The female Wilson’s Snipe makes a shallow scrape in moist soil, then weaves a lining of coarse grasses to build a nest up to 7 inches across and 3 inches deep. She adds finer grasses to the inside, creating a more elaborate nest than the simple scrapes most shorebirds make. Before and after laying each egg the female adds a few grasses or sedges from the edge of the nest site.

Nest Placement

Ground

Followed by her partner, the female Wilson’s Snipe makes several scrapes before selecting a nest site on the ground close to or even surrounded by water. The nest is often placed atop or on the edge of a hummock and well hidden by sedges, grass, or sphagnum moss. Willow, alder, or other brush may obscure the nest from above.

Behavior


Probing

This elusive bird sleeps much of the day, then feeds around dusk and dawn. They probe for insect larvae and other prey in marshes, bogs, along pond and river edges, and in other wet settings, using the sensory receptors at the tip of their long, straight bills to locate food. Despite their somewhat pudgy, unbalanced look, Wilson’s Snipe are strong, fast flyers reaching speeds of more than 60 miles per hour. If you flush one, it will burst from cover with a characteristic zigzagging flight that distinguishes it from other sandpipers. These birds are best known for their dramatic “winnowing” courtship displays: as a snipe (usually a male but sometimes a female) circles and dives over the breeding territory, air rushes over the outspread tail feathers. This creates a haunting, whirring hu-hu-hu sound. Both males and females winnow as part of courtship or to rebuff potential predators, and males perform the winnowing flight when advertising and defending territory. Like many sandpipers, a Wilson’s Snipe with eggs or chicks will attempt to distract a predator with an elaborate show of feigned injury, fluttering up from the nest and falling to the ground, or flopping on its side or breast and beating its wings.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Wilson’s Snipes are widespread and their numbers have been stable overall since 1966, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The global breeding population, which is shared between the U.S. and Canada, is estimated at 2 million individuals. Approximately 136,000 snipe are shot by U.S. hunters each year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; this number was probably several times higher during the mid-twentieth century. Wilson’s Snipes depend on wetlands, and draining or conversion of wetlands is detrimental to this species. Other threats include collisions with lighthouses, radio, TV, and cell towers, buildings, and cars.

Credits

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Migration

Medium- to long-distance migrant. Wilson’s Snipes breed across northern North America and winter from the southern U.S. through Central America to Venezuela. Some Wilson’s Snipes in the Northwest remain there year-round.

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.