Snipe Bird: You’d Better Believe It!

Known for its musical tail, the elusive, yet very real snipe bird continues to be widely unknown.

| September/October 2010

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.

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