Early one spring evening I phoned my new neighbor. “Hey, Jan, the snipes are back. They just showed up,” I said. “Do you want to come over?”
There was a momentary pause before she replied, “Should I bring a flashlight and gunnysack? On second thought, I’ll just see you tomorrow for our morning walk. I’m, uh, kind of busy right now. Bye.” Click.
I looked at the phone in my hand and suddenly felt like a person left “holding the bag.” I’d called my neighbor with honest intentions, then realized my mistake after she hung up. In the excitement of hearing the first love-struck snipe of the season, I overlooked one detail. I forgot that I’m the exception to the rule – I learned about real snipe before I learned about “the snipe hunt.”
No other bird requires as many explanations, excuses or apologies as the snipe. Because it is best known as a fictional creature invented for playing a fool’s errand joke on newcomers to the country, few people know the real snipe – a secretive and largely solitary bird that combines mystical sounds and curious habits that seem almost unbelievable.
Snipes are heard more often than seen, but if you’re lucky enough to view one, your first look will probably be a double take. With a bill that measures one-fifth the length of its body, there’s a distinct resemblance to Pinocchio’s long nose. This is no fib. The bird is real, and its name probably comes from an Old English word meaning “snout.” Eighteen species of these fabled birds exist worldwide. In North America, the Wilson’s Snipe (formerly called common snipe) is our only representative. It ranges from the Arctic Circle to northern Venezuela, and despite its widespread distribution and relative abundance, the snipe is hard to find. This long-billed, medium-sized shorebird prefers the dense vegetation of bogs and marshes over typical shorebird hangouts like beaches.
The snipe’s eerie, haunting tune (often described as winnowing) is the best introduction to these living legends. The mysterious melody begins around twilight. The challenge of locating the dim speck of this musician flying somewhere high in the sky helps me appreciate the folklore and superstition associated with these stranger-than-fiction birds.
Myths, mysteries and musical tails
Centuries ago, people in parts of northern Germany believed the peculiar sound produced by snipes came from a team of bleating goats pulling a chariot across the sky. To the Swedes, the sound came from a whinnying horse in heaven. And the Nunamiut of Alaska compared the snipe’s winnowing to the walrus’s blowing sound that carries long distances.
Fishermen in early-day New England associated the timing of snipe music with the upstream spawning runs of shad. They believed the quivering tunes came from the shad spirit. Even Henry David Thoreau described the snipe’s winnowing as a “peculiar spirit-suggesting sound.”
Nineteenth-century naturalists eventually realized that the snipe’s music was not caused by the supernatural, yet they were hard-pressed to explain how the sound was created. Was it vocal? Was it made by the wings or tail, or both? For more than a half century, naturalists debated and conducted experiments to determine the sound’s origin. Finally, in 1907, an Englishman viewed the snipe’s outside tail feathers beneath a microscope. Sir Philip Manson-Bahr noted that they contained extra hooks that made them stronger and able to withstand “the strain of vibration.”
When a snipe dives, it splays the outside tail feathers nearly perpendicular to its body. The force of air against these rigid feathers produces vibrations. The hum occurs when dive speeds reach 25 to 35 miles per hour. Placement of wings during the dive diverts the air flow and contributes to the tremulous effect. The wings also keep the rushing air from shredding the tail feathers to pieces.
Snipe music is the male’s love song without words – an instrumental played between tail feathers and the wind. It advertises his breeding territory. To male snipes, it says, “Keep Out.” To females, it’s a come-on, complete with animated musical routines and aerial acrobatics that can include bursts of upside-down flight.
From my home in northwest Montana, I hear the first snipe in early April, and serious snipe music fills the air in May and June. The sound carries a long way, and it’s surprisingly difficult to pinpoint the music maker for several reasons.
Though the size of a blue jay, the snipe looks incredibly tiny as it flies a hundred yards or more above the ground. It’s also a rapid flyer. I might hear the first bleating high to my left. By the time I glance in that direction, the sound beckons to my right. I rubberneck again only to hear the sound sneak up from somewhere else. With perseverance I usually locate the snipe way up in the sky and watch his roller coaster performance. After each power dive (at a 45-degree angle), he regains altitude before plunging again. The sounds rise and fall in synch with each swoop.
Snipe music during the breeding season typically occurs at dawn and dusk with two notable exceptions: On clear moonlit nights, the snipe bleats all night long, and when the barometric pressure drops, they winnow throughout the day (and at lower altitudes). A snipe can’t actually predict the weather, but it responds to the falling barometer often enough to earn such names as “storm bird” or “rain bringer.” Of course, a snipe can just as easily “forecast” high pressure systems. The “weather maker,” as it is also known, flies high in the sky when the weather is fair.
By the time snipe music diminishes, I know that nesting is in full swing. The male snipe tapers off his skydiving pursuits in anticipation of paternal duties. Snipe family life works something like this.
After a female snipe has been seduced to a male’s territory and mated with him, she begins preparing her on-the-ground nest, which is always located near boggy or marshy environments. The nest may be as simple as a cup-shaped depression lined with grass. In places where vegetation is dense, such as the grassy hummocks by the creek in my backyard, her nest rests atop last year’s flattened plants. To this, she may inter-twine stems and grass blades into a sparsely woven canopy to further conceal the nest.
For 18 to 20 days, the female incubates four spotted and speckled brown-and-olive-colored eggs. Several days before they hatch, Mr. Snipe quits his aerial antics. Like a new dad expecting the birth of his first child, he remains close to the nest, listening for the peeps of his soon-to-hatch offspring. Within hours of their hatching, he guides one or two chicks away from their mother using his 21⁄2-inch-long bill as if it were a shepherd’s cane. Each parent broods and feeds their well-camouflaged fluff balls in a unique, split-custody arrangement that’s believed to reduce predation of the entire family.
A snipe has no real defense against enemies
except for rapid flight, which it uses as a last resort. It relies primarily on its cryptic brown, white and black mottled and striped plumage and its motionless stance to hide among inches-high grass. Like a camouflage wizard, it disappears by flying into and crouching in a tangle of vegetation. The stripes on its head and back are indistinguishable from the thin blades of old, bleached-out grass found within its favorite haunts.
Our inability to find them doesn’t mean they can’t see us. A snipe literally sees behind itself. With eyes positioned higher on its head than most birds, the snipe watches for predators above while probing for dinner in the mucky soils below.
Its peculiar eating method adds to its stranger-than-fiction classification. The snipe eats with its bill closed! The super sensitive tip of the beak pokes into the dark ooze for delectables like insect larvae, earthworms, spiders, beetles and small crustaceans. Without removing its bill from almost-face-deep mud, the tip of the upper mandible flexes like a pincher to grab and haul in grub. The snipe’s tongue works like a conveyor belt moving food to its gullet.
Snipers and the snipe hunt
The diet of the snipe was first described by John James Audubon in 1861. He credited the bird’s choice of foods for providing the “richness of flavor and tenderness for which (the snipe) is so deservedly renowned.” Snipe was a delicacy. Real snipe hunting was a popular sport in the 1800s, and some reports claimed that North American hunters harvested more snipes than any other game bird, including waterfowl. Snipe hunters from bygone days were known as “snipers.” Their ability to hit a small, zigzagging target that reached speeds up to 60 miles per hour required extraordinary skill. Modern-day use of the word refers to a highly trained marksman and nothing about snipes.
Times change, and today’s “snipe hunt” is a far cry from snipe hunting a century or more ago. Even though many states manage a real snipe hunt, to most people it will remain a prank played on the unsuspecting. And the more I think about it, the real joke lies on those who refuse to believe in a bird with a musical tail.
Ellen Horowitz is a freelance writer and naturalist from Montana. She swears that in her 35-year career leading wildlife watching tours she’s never taken anyone on a snipe hunt.