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Wilson's Snipe


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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Both male and female Wilson’s Snipes give an array of calls on the breeding grounds. They also make a scaipe call when they flush or at night during migration. Breeding birds give a repeated hard, sharp jick call when excited, a chip-per call between males and females, and a harsher chip that the male makes when landing to court a female, or the female makes as a male winnows overhead.

Other Sounds

Air rushing over the Wilson’s Snipe’s outspread tail feathers creates the haunting hu-hu-hu winnowing sound, described as similar to the call of an Eastern Screech-Owl. The sound is usually produced as the birds dive, but can also be generated when the bird levels out following a dive. Males perform the winnowing flight to defend territory and attract mates. Females also winnow prior to breeding, but stop as soon as they begin to nest.

Search the Macaulay Library online archive for more sounds and videos

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.