Living Bird Magazine
Wilson's SnipeGallinago delicata
- ORDER: Charadriiformes
- FAMILY: Scolopacidae
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.More ID Info
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.
- Agachona Norteamericana (Spanish)
- Bécassine de Wilson (French)
- 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 at least 9 years, 3 months old, based on a band recovered from a bird that was shot in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.