[Published in 1927: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 142 (Part 1): 81-98]
The above species, with its several varieties, enjoys a world-wide distribution and is universally well known. The American subspecies is widely distributed from coast to coast and occurs more or less commonly, at one season or another, in nearly every part of North America. It was formerly exceedingly abundant, but its numbers have been sadly depleted during the past 50 years by excessive shooting. Alexander Wilson first called attention to the characters, size, and number of tail feathers, which distinguished our bird from the European. But they are so much alike that it seems best to regard them as subspecies, rather than as distinct species.
Spring.--The snipe is an early migrant, leaving its winter quarters just below the frost line, just as soon as the northern frost goes out of the ground, about as early as the woodcock. When the warm spring rains have softened the meadows, when the hylas have thawed out and are peeping in the pond holes, when the cheerful okalee of the redwings is heard in the marshes and when the herring are running up the streams to spawn, then we need not look in vain for the coming of the snipe. Low, moist meadow lands, or wet pastures frequented by cattle, are favorite haunts, where their splashings and borings are frequently seen among the cow tracks. They are also found in high bushy, wet pastures, or in the vicinity of spring-fed brooks among scattered clumps of willows, huckleberries or alders.
Courtship.--On the wings of the south wind comes the first wisp of snipe, the will-o-the-wisp of the marshes, here today and gone tomorrow, coming and going under the cover of darkness. All through the spring migration and all through the nesting season we may hear the weird winnowing sound of the snipe's courtship flight, a tremulous humming sound, loud and penetrating, audible at a long distance. One is both thrilled and puzzled when he hears it for the first time, for it seems like a disembodied sound, the sighing of some wandering spirit, until the author is discovered, a mere speck, sweeping across the sky. The sound resembles the noise made by a duck's wings in rapid flight, a rapidly pulsating series of notes, who, who, who, who, who, who, who, who, increasing and then decreasing again in intensity. It has been termed the "bleating" of the snipe, but this does not seem to describe it so well as "winnowing." J. R. Whitaker, with whom I hunted snipe in Newfoundland, told me that both sexes indulge in this performance and George M. Sutton (1923) suggested the possibility of it.
Dr. Joseph Grinnell (1900) gives the best account of this courtship flight, as follows:
I was in a broad grassy swale, studded here and there with scrub spruces and bordered by taller timber, when my attention was attracted by a curious far-off song which puzzled me for some time. Finally I descried the producer, a Wilson's snipe, so far overhead as to be scarcely discernible against the clear sky. It was flying slowly in a broad circle with a diameter of perhaps 600 yards, so that the direction of the sound was ever shifting, thus confusing me until I caught sight of its author. This lofty flight was not continuously on the same level, but consisted of a series of lengthy undulations or swoops. At the end of each swoop the bird would mount up to its former level. The drop at the beginning of the downward dive was with partly closed, quivering wings, but the succeeding rise was accomplished by a succession of rapid wing beats. The peculiar resonant song was a rolling series of syllables uttered during the downward swoop, and just before this drop merged into the following rise a rumbling and whirring sound became audible, accompanying the latter part of the song and finishing it. This curious song flight was kept up for 15 minutes, ending with a downward dash. But before the bird reached the ground and was yet some 20 yards above it there was apparently a complete collapse. The bird dropped as if shot for several feet, but abruptly recovered itself to fly a short distance farther and repeat this new maneuver. By a succession of these collapses, falls, recoveries, and short flights the acrobatically inclined bird finally reached the ground, alighting in the grass near me.
All of the early American writers, and many others since then, supposed that the winnowing sound was made by the bird's wings, although many European observers long ago argued that it was made by the two pairs of outer tail feathers, which are widely spread and held downward at right angles to the axis of the body during the downward swoops and vibrate as the air rushes through them. W. L. Dawson (1923) says that--
the body of the sound is produced by the impact of the air upon the sharp lateral feathers of the tail, held stiffly, while the pulsations of sound are produced by the wings. At least it is certain that the pulsations of sound are synchronous with the wing beats. The sound begins gradually, as while the tail is expanding, and closes with a smooth diminuendo as the tail is closing and while the wings are sailing.
N. S. Goss (1891) gives a different account of the courtship, as follows:
In courtship, the male struts with drooping wings and widespread tail around his mate, in a most captivating manner, often at such times rising spirallike with quickly beating wings high in air, dropping back in a wavy graceful circle, uttering at the same time his jarring cackling love note, which, with the vibration of the wings upon the air, makes a rather pleasing sound.
Mr. Sutton (1923) noted some peculiar flight performances, which may be connected with the courtship; he says:
On April 29 two birds were repeatedly flushed together; not always the same two individuals necessarily, I presume, and not certainly of opposite sex. But these birds often sailed gracefully over the cattails, in wide sweeping undulations, with wings set in a manner suggesting chimney swifts, a type of flight totally different from any previously observed. The same stunt was many times observed in the male bird of the pair whose nest was located. In fact this type of display, if it were display, was so common that the usual twitching, erratic flight was only rarely seen. I have wondered if this may not have been a pair of birds, possibly recently mated, though not actually nesting there.
On May 3, in a portion of the swamp near town, a new antic was observed. A snipe, subsequently determined as a male, sprang up close at hand, and after a few energetic, direct wing beats, put his wings high above his body and, describing a graceful arc, dropped toward the ground, his legs trailing, only to rise again to repeat the performance. Never during this exhibition did he actually touch the ground with his feet, so far as I could see, but it gave that impression. He was clearly excited, and I now know that such antics are a certain indication of nesting activity. At such times the male gave forth several short notes which may accurately be termed "bleats." Occasionally the bird, after performing this novel antic would drop to the grass some distance away, and then fly up after a time, considerably nearer me, making it evident that he was attempting to lure me away. Then again, after trying these antics for a time, he would suddenly mount to the sky, and there would follow a season of the weird wind music--always delightful.
Aretas A. Saunders, in his notes, says that--
After the eggs are laid the female often answers this sound with a long call 'okee okee okee' repeated 8 or 10 times and resembling the 'buckwheat' call of the guinea hen. I believe the female is sitting on the eggs when she calls this way, for I have found the nest by location the position of the sound at night and returning in the morning. The nest is usually in about the center of the male's circle of flight.
Nesting.--As with the woodcock, my personal experience with the nesting of the Wilson snipe has been limited to one nest, found in the Magdalen Islands on June 18, 1904. The nest was found by watching the bird go to it in the East Point marshes. It was on dry ground in a little clump of grass, under some low and rather open bayberry bushes, on the edge of a boggy arm of the marsh, which extended up into the woods; it was built up about 2 inches above the ground and was made of short, dead straws and dead bayberry leaves; it measured 6 inches in outside and 3 inches in inside diameter. The four eggs which it contained blended perfectly with their surroundings and although in plain sight, they were not easily seen. P. B. Philipp (1925), who has found many snipe's nests in the Magdalen Islands, where he says the species is increasing, writes:
The nesting begins in the last 10 days of May, and is a simple affair. Usually wet marshy ground is selected, preferably with low brush and grass with lumps or tussocks rising above the bog water. The nest is a shallow hollow made in the grass or moss of one of these lumps, lined with broken bits of dead grass and sometimes with dead leaves.
William L. Kells (1906) gives a graphic account of finding a nest of the Wilson snipe in southern Ontario, as follows:
On the 17th of May, 1905, as I was passing through a patch of low ground overgrown with second growth willows, a rather large-sized bird flushed from a spot a few feet from where I had jumped over a neck of water. I did not see the exact place from which the bird had flown, but the fluttering sound of her wing caught my ear, and looking ahead I saw the creature, who with outspread tail and wings, was fluttering on the damp earth, and with her long bill down in the mud, was giving vent to a series of squeaking sounds. I knew at once that this bird had flushed from a nest, and that the object of her actions was to draw my attention from something that she was very desirous to conceal; but a little research revealed a nest containing four beautiful eggs. A clump of willows a little elevated stood about 6 feet from the pool over which the bird had flown, and midway between the water and the willows, which overhung it, the nest was placed. This was simply a slight depression made by the bird in the moss and dry grass, and except from its concealed situation and being a little more expanded, there was no particular distinction between it and those of the more familiar killdeer plover and spotted sandpiper, though the lining was probably of a warmer texture, being of fine dry grass, while the eggs, as in the case of all the ground nesting waders, were arranged with the small ends inward.
A Colorado nest is thus described by Robert B. Rockwell (1912):
This nest was located on (and above) the surface of slightly damp ground at the edge of a good-sized area of very soft, boggy land formed by the seepage under the dyke of the Big Barr Lake. It was built in the center of a tussock of grass about 8 inches in length and was a very neat, well-shaped and cupped nest composed entirely of fine dry grass. In construction it was far superior to any shore bird's nest I have ever seen, being so compactly and strongly put together that it was possible to remove it from the nesting site without injury. In general appearance the nest itself is not unlike certain sparrows' nests.
A nest photographed for me by F. Seymour Hersey, near the mouth of the Yukon River, Alaska, was in a very wet spot on the border of a marsh; it was a deep hollow prettily arched over with dry grasses at the base of a small willow bush.
The Wilson snipe is often a close sitter and sometimes will not leave the nest until nearly trodden upon. W. J. Brown (1912) tells of a case where he stroked the bird on the back and had to lift her off the nest to photograph the eggs.
Mr. Sutton (1923) has published a full and very interesting account of the breeding habits of the Wilson snipe in Crawford County, Pennsylvania, where he found several nests in a large, wet swamp among cat-tails and grasses; of the first nest he says:
The nest was beautifully situated in the center of a clump of dried fern stalks--a clump similar to hundreds of just such little islands near at hand but certainly admirably suited to such a nesting site, for the eggs were almost completely surrounded at the short distance of 4 inches by a paling of dead fern stalks. The eggs were about 9 inches above water at this time, although the water's depth changed constantly with every rainfall, and five days later the outer rim of the nest was only 2 inches above water level. Another was built upon a bit of decayed, sunken log and was composed entirely of grass stems rather carefully laid together. The eggs were but a few inches above the surface of the water, and although grass stems connected the nesting site with other vegetation the nest was virtually on an island surrounded by water 18 inches deep.
And of still another he says:
This nest was the only snipe nest I have seen which had any real protection from above. The nest was so placed under a dead willow branch and some leaning cat-tail stalks that it was really difficult to see it. The grasses composing the nest had been placed with care and were somewhat woven about the cat-tail stalks and other grasses standing near.
Eggs.--Four eggs is the normal number laid by the snipe; rarely five eggs are laid. They are about ovate pyriform in shape and slightly glossy. The ground colors vary from "buckthorn brown" or "Isabella color" in the darkest types to "deep olive buff" or "dark olive buff" in the lighter types, which are much commoner. As a rule the eggs are boldly spotted and blotched, chiefly about the larger end; but often they are spotted more or less evenly over the entire surface. The markings are dark shades of brown, "burnt umber," "bister," or "bone brown." Often there are splashes or scrawls of brownish black, or black at the larger end. "Snuff brown," "vinaceous drab," or "brownish drab" under spots or blotches often occur.
The measurements of 57 eggs average 38.6 by 28.1 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 42.4 by 29.5, 36.1 by 29.9, and 37.5 by 25.5 millimeters.
Young--The period of incubation is from 18 to 20 days, and it is shared by both sexes. Mr. Philipp (1925) says that three birds taken from the nest were all males. The young leave the nest soon after they are hatched, and wander about in the long grass, where their concealing coloration makes them very hard to find. One day, while watching snipe with J. R. Whitaker on a large marsh near the mouth of Sandy River in Newfoundland, I saw a snipe several times go down into the grass at a certain place. Thinking to find a nest there I made a careful search, and finally found one small downy young; but not another one could I find in a long hunt. This moist meadow full of grassy hummocks is a great breeding place for snipe. Here we frequently saw snipe sitting in trees, bushes, or on telegraph poles, uttering their loud kep kep kep notes of protest. On the girders of a steel bridge that spans the river at this point Mr. Whitaker has seen as many as five snipe perched at one time.
Mr. Sutton (1923) describes the behavior of an anxious mother as follows:
The mother's antics so claimed my attention that I did not keep close enough watch of the young, and eventually was unable to find them. I hesitated to tramp about much at the time for fear of stepping upon them. The mother bird grunted and clucked incessantly and fell upon her side uttering weird cries, and beating her wings pitiably. At times she would dart into the air and circle about in great haste, very close to me and alight in the tall grass, whence she would run gracefully away until she was again plainly in view. As she ran about her head was held rather stiffly, and it seemed that moving it from side to side much caused her inconvenience. In fact once or twice a definite impression was given that she was carrying something in her mouth, her head was held at such a strained angle.
Plumages.--The young snipe in its dark and richly-colored natal down is one of the handsomest of the young waders. The upper parts, including the crown, back, wings, and thighs, are variegated or marbled with velvety black, "bay," "chestnut," and "amber brown"; the down is mainly black at the base and brown-tipped; the entire upper parts are spotted with small round white spots at the tips of some of the down filaments, producing a beautiful effect of color contrasts and a surprisingly protective coloration. The head is distinctively marked with a white spot on the forehead, a black crescent above it and a black triangle below it, partially concealed by brown tips; there is a distinct black loral stripe, extending faintly beyond the eye, and a less distinct black malar strip; between these two is a conspicuous, large, white cheek patch. The chin and upper throat are "light ochraceous buff"; below this on the lower throat is a large sooty-black area, partially concealed by brown tips, these "tawny" brown tips predominating on the breast and flanks, and shading off to "pale pinkish cinnamon" on the belly.
The juvenal plumage appears first on the back and scapulars, then on the breast and wing coverts. A bird in my collection about half grown has the above parts well feathered and the remiges one-third grown; but the head and rump are still downy and the rectrices have not yet started. The juvenal plumage is like the adult, except that the buff edgings of the feathers on the sides of the back and the scapulars, forming the stripes, are narrower and paler, sometimes almost white on the outer webs. The body feathers and some of the scapulars and tertials are molted during the fall, making the young bird almost indistinguishable from the adult.
Both young birds and adults have a partial prenuptial molt in the late winter and early spring, involving the contour feathers, wing coverts, tertials, and the tail. Adults have a complete molt between July and October. The spring and fall plumages are alike except that the fresh fall plumage is somewhat more richly colored.
Food.--The feeding habits of the Wilson snipe are much like those of the woodcock, except that it often feeds in much wetter places and is somewhat less nocturnal. Benjamin T. Gault (1902) discovered by observation that snipe occasionally resort to open mud flats, unmindful of the cover of darkness and that they feed at all hours of the day. He describes their method of feeding as follows:
The snipe seemed to select as special feeding grounds the water line just bordering the flats, where the mud was soft and into which they delighted in sinking their bills to the fullest depth. And in withdrawing them they never elevated their necks in true sandpiper style. On the contrary they kept their heads well "chucked down," so to speak, and in moving about from place to place, which they seldom did, however, continue to hold them in the same fashion.
In some respect their probing methods resembled the rooting of swine--a simple, up and down forward movement, and if remembered rightly, without lateral twists or side thrusts of any kind, and at times exposing fully one-half of the bill.
Whether the Wilson snipe actually do resort to the so-called "suction" method of procuring their food is a question still undetermined in my mind. The glasses however brought out the important information that the probing or feeling movements of the bill were accompanied every now and then with a guttural or swallowing motion of the throat, which at times developed into a decided gulp, as though large morsels of some kind were being taken down, and this without the removal of the bill from the muck.
Henry W. Henshaw (1875) describes an entirely different method of feeding; he says:
In migrating, however, especially in Arizona and New Mexico, did it depend wholly upon its usual methods of obtaining sustenance, it would fare badly, since, in some sections, there is a total lack of meadow and marsh, and then it may be seen in broad midday running along the sandy borders of the streams, and picking up from among the pebbles and debris any tidbits in the shape of insects it can find. It retains, however, even under these adverse conditions, its habit of squatting, and, when approached closely, I have seen it lower its body close to the ground, shrink as it were into as little space as possible, and so remain till I was within a few feet, when it would get up with its well known 'scaip, scaip,' and, following the turns and sinuosities of the streams, endeavor to find some little covered nook into which it could drop out of sight.
Mr. M. P. Skinner watched a snipe feeding on the muddy shore of a pond in the Yellowstone Valley; he says in his notes:
He was about 6 inches from shore and at each stroke his bill went in up to his eyes. The strokes were rapid like those of a woodpecker. He covered a space perhaps 4 inches wide and 15 feet long in an hour, getting something every half dozen strokes or so. He was very busy there for two hours at least.
Earthworms probably constitute the principle food of the Wilson snipe, but it also eats cutworms, wireworms, leaches, grasshoppers, locusts, beetles, mosquitoes, other insects and their larvae, and some seeds of marsh plants.
Behavior.--Snipe are notorious for their erratic flight and they often, probably usually, do dodge and zigzag when they first flush in alarm, but not always; I have seen them fly away as steadily as any other shore bird. Snipe usually lie closely crouched on the ground trusting to their excellent protective coloration, and do not flush until nearly trodden upon; so that in their hurry to get away their flight is erratic. When well under way their flight is steady and swift with the occasional turnings common to all shore birds. When first flushed they generally fly low, but when flying from one part of the marsh to another, or when migrating, they fly very high. When alighting they pitch down suddenly from a great height and then flutter down slowly into the grass or drop straight down with wings elevated and bill pointing upwards. They are less gregarious than other waders; they usually flush singly, but often within a few yards of each other if plentiful. They are seldom seen in flocks. John T. Nichols tells me in his notes of a flock of seven which he saw on Long Island:
They were flying high from the east to west, the regular southward land for shore birds, and bunched up like dowitchers or yellowlegs as they circled over the marsh, then slanted down obliquely (as these other birds would have done) to alight on a piece of dead stubble. By the time I reached them they had scattered somewhat; four (scattered) and three (bunched) flushed from this spot in close succession, and went off into the southwest. The migration of the snipe may be mostly by night; it certainly flies to some extent along the coast by day.
And Harry S. Swarth (1922) says:
While the usual manner of occurrence was for a single bird to be flushed or perhaps two or three within a few square yards, there were times when snipe were noted in small flocks, almost like sandpipers in their actions. Groups of 10 or 12 individuals were seen circling about through the air in close formation and wheeling or turning in perfect unison. At such times almost the only thing to betray the identity of the birds was the call note uttered at frequent intervals. At no time, however, did birds flushed from the ground depart in flock formation.
On the ground the snipe moves about deliberately with bill pointing downwards. If alarmed it squats for concealment before jumping into flight when hard pressed; the longitudinal strips on its back and head so closely resemble prostrate stems of dead grass that the bird is difficult to distinguish. Mr. Skinner "saw one alight and run rapidly along the ground for 20 feet, erect with head high, like a running bob white." C. J. Pennock watched one standing on a bare mud flat with "a continued up and down rhythmic movement of the entire body." E. H. Forbush (1925) writes:
The snipe can swim and dive and uses both wings and feet under water in its efforts to escape. Mr. Will H. Parsons writes that he shot one that fell into a little clear streamlet where later he found it dead, under water, grasping a rootlet in its bill. Later, on the Scioto River, as he relates, he shot another which fell into the river, and, turning, swam back toward the shore. On seeing him approach it dived, and he saw it grasp a weed with its bill. Wading in he secured the bird "stone dead."
Voice.--Eliminating the winnowing flight notes, which are unquestionably instrumental, the Wilson snipe has a variety of vocal notes. The one most often heard is the familiar scaipe note, a note of alarm and warning, given as the bird rises in hurried flight. This note has been variously expressed in writing, perhaps best by the word "escape," which the snipe often does, unless the sportsman is smart enough to say "no you don't," and prove it. On the breeding grounds we frequently hear its loud notes of protest, uttered while it is flying about or perched on some tree or post; these are in the form of a loud clear whistle like wheat wheat wheat wheat or more subdued in tone like whuck whuck whuck whuck; they are always rapidly uttered and usually consist of four or five notes. E. W. Nelson (1887) refers to a similar note heard on the breeding grounds as "yak yak yak yak in quick, energetic, explosive syllables. At the time when the bird is uttering its note, it flies along within a short distance of the ground with a peculiar jerky movement of the body and wings as every note is uttered."
Mr. Nichols says in his notes:
When a bird gets up almost from underfoot, the 'scape' is at times replaced by a series of short, hurried notes of similar character. It is interesting to find in the Wilson's snipe this imperfect differentiation of a note uttered at the moment of taking wing from the one uttered when in or approaching full flight--as it is a condition slightly different from the calls of other more social shore birds which trust comparatively little to concealment, take wing while danger is still at a distance with hurried minor notes, so soft as to readily escape notice, and have each a loud diagnostic flight call of much service in their identification.
The 'scape' of the snipe has sufficient resemblance to the woodcock's 'peent,' which forms a part of the nuptial performance of that species, to leave little doubt that the two are homologous (that is, of the same derivation), if we assume the snipe and woodcock to be related. It is, however, more analogous (that is, of corresponding place or purpose) with the wing twitter of the woodcock. Its harsh quality is in keeping with the voices of unrelated denisons of marsh and swamp, herons, rails, frogs, etc., and the discords of close-by bog sounds continually in its ears. The quality of the snipe's call contrasts sharply with the peculiarly clear, mellow whistle of the black-breasted plover, for instance, and the ringing calls of species of similar habit, with carrying power over the open distances of their haunts. The connecting series of limicoline voices, through the reedy calls of such marsh-loving birds as the pectoral sandpiper, leaves little doubt that there is a correlation between habit and quality of voice.
In some notes from Alaska, he writes:
July 17, on the slope of a low, gentle tundra hill a little way back from the shore, ahead of me a snipe fluttered up a short distance, then down; up, then down; accompanying this performance with 'chup chup chup chup chew chew chew chew chew.' It alighted in a comparatively open space with a couple of small bog holes of water, surrounded with a circle of scrub willows, and here I presently flushed it again. It rose with a 'chape' note, more muffled and reedy than the ordinary Wilson snipe 'scape,' and, curving downward, rose higher, attaining considerable elevation in the distance, as I followed it with my glass. It now began to zigzag up and down, maintaining approximately its position in the sky to leeward. Meanwhile I heard an unfamiliar more or less whistled 'peep-er-weep' once or twice, and an intermittent winnowing sound, 'wish wish wish wish wish,' etc. Being uncertain as to whether these sounds came from the distant snipe, or from some other bird closer at hand in the air, I took my glasses off the former to look about me, and as I feared I should do, lost track of it in the sky. Presently the winnowing ceased and I began to hear a continuous harsh 'cuta-cuta-cuta-cuta' from over the brow of the hill, which turned out to be a snipe, presumably the same one which had returned, standing on top of the only stake thereabouts.
Field marks.--The Wilson snipe should be easily recognized by its long bill, its erratic flight, its conspicuous stripes, and the rufous near the end of its tail. The harsh scaipe note is diagnostic. It might be confused with the dowitcher, but the flight, notes, and usual haunts of the latter are different. I have often thought that the pectoral sandpiper resembles the snipe, as it rises from the grass, but it lacks the long bill, and is not so conspicuously striped on the back.
Fall.--The fall migration of snipe is dependent on the weather, the first early frosts are apt to start them along; when the brilliant red leaves of the swamp maples add their touch of color to the marshes, and when the vegetation in the meadows begins to take on the rich hues of autumn, then we may look for the coming of the snipe. They are by no means confined to fresh-water marshes at this season. I have occasionally flushed a Wilson snipe on the salt marshes of Cape Cod, and have frequently found them on the dry grassy shores of islands in inland ponds.
Wells W. Cooke (1914) says:
They seem reluctant to return south in fall, even though they can have no appreciation of the constant persecution which awaits them during the six months' sojourn in their winter home. A few migrants appear in the northern part of the United States in early September, and moving slowly southward, reach the southern part of the Gulf States shortly after the middle of October. Soon the main body of the birds follows, and all normally keep south of the line of frozen ground. Yet every winter some laggards remain much farther north, feeding about springs or streams. A few can usually be found on Cape Cod, Mass., while in the Rocky Mountains, near Sweetwater Lake, Colorado, the presence of warm springs has enabled snipe to remain throughout an entire winter, though the air temperature fell to 30 o F. below zero.
Mr. Brewster (1906) writes:
During exceptionally wet autumns snipe occasionally resort in large numbers to the highly cultivated truck farms of Arlington and Belmont. An interesting instance of this happened in September, 1875, when a flight, larger than any that I have known to occur in the Cambridge region before or since, settled in some water-soaked fields and covered with crops of corn, potatoes, cabbages, etc., on the Hittinger farm, Belmont. Learning of the presence of these birds about a week after their arrival, I visited the place early the next morning, but all save 10 or a dozen of them had departed, owing, no doubt, to the fact that there had been a hard frost during the preceding night. The borings and other signs which they had left convinced me, however, that the statement made to me at the time by Mr. Jacob Hittinger, to the effect that he had started 'four or five hundred snipe' there only the day before, was probably not an exaggeration of the truth.
Game.--The Wilson snipe, improperly called "jack snipe," but more properly called "English snipe," is one of our most popular game birds. Probably more snipe have been killed by sportsmen than any other game bird. it ranks ahead of all other shore birds and upland game birds except, possibly, the woodcock, ruffed grouse, and quail. When the startling cry of the snipe arouses the sportsman to instant action he realizes that he is up against a real gamey proposition. He must be a good shot indeed to make a creditable score against such quick erratic flyers. A tramp over the open meadows, brown, red, and golden in their autumn livery, with one or two good dogs quartering the ground in plain sight and with an occasional shot at a swiftly flying bird, is one of the delights of a crisp autumn day. The birds will lie closely on a calm day, but on a windy, blustering day they are restless and wild. It is well to hunt down wind as the birds usually rise against the wind and will fly towards and then quartering away from the shooter. When two men hunt along a narrow marsh, the man on the windward side will get most of the shooting. Snipe are usually shot on wet meadows or marshes, but that they are often found in other places is shown by the following quotations from Dwight W. Huntington (1903):
Audubon says the snipe is never found in the woods, but Forester mentions finding it in wild, windy weather early in the season in the skirts of some moist woodlands under sheltered lee sides of young plantations, among willow, alder, and brier brakes, and, in short, wherever there is good, soft, springy feeding ground perfectly sheltered and protected from the wind by trees and shrubbery.
Abbott says: "During the autumn I have found them along neglected meadow ditches overhung by large willow trees, and again hidden in the reeds along the banks of creeks. I have shot them repeatedly in wet woodland meadows. I have often found snipe in bushy tracts and among the swamp willows, but I have never seen them in the forest, and believe they so rarely resort to the woods that it would not be worth while to seek them there."
Snipe must have been exceedingly abundant 50 or 60 years ago, as the oft-quoted achievements of James J. Pringle (1899) will illustrate. He was not a market hunter but a gentleman (?) sportsman, who shot for the fun of it and gave the birds away to his friends. His excuses for excessive slaughter and his apologies for not killing more are interesting; he writes:
The birds being such great migrants, and only in the country for a short time, I had no mercy on them and killed all I could, for a snipe once missed might never be seen again.
I shot with only one gun at a time; had no loader, but loaded my gun myself; had I shot with two guns and had a loader I would, of course, have killed a great many more birds, but in those days and in those parts it was impossible to get a man that could be trusted to load.
During the 20 years from 1867 to 1887 he shot, on his favorite hunting grounds in Louisiana, 69,087 snipe and a total of 71,859 of all game birds; but his shooting fell off during the next 10 years for he increased his grand total of snipe to only 78,602 and of all game birds to only 82,101! His best day, undoubtedly a world's record, was December 11, 1877, when he shot in six hours 366 snipe and 8 other birds. On his best seven consecutive shooting days, alternate days in December, 1877, he killed 1,943 snipe and 25 other birds. During the winter of 1874-75 he killed 6,615 snipe. Captain Bogardus, the famous trap shot, killed, with the help of a friend, 340 snipe on one day in Illinois, and seldom got less than 150 on good days. With such excessive shooting all through the fall, winter, and spring, is it to be wondered at that the snipe have decreased in numbers?
Winter.--As mentioned above snipe spend the winters in small numbers as far north as they can find unfrozen marshes and spring holes, but their main winter resorts are in the southern States, the West Indies, and northern South America. They were formerly enormously abundant in the marshes and savannas of Florida and other Gulf States, where they are still common in winter. C. J. Pennock tells me that they are still abundant all winter about St. Marks, Florida, his earliest and latest dates being September 12 and May 10. Arthur T. Wayne (1910) says that, in South Carolina, the snipe "are most abundant during the months of February and March, and at that time multitudes frequent the rice plantations, provided the water is not too deep over the land." J. H. Bowles (1918) says that in Washington "cold weather does not seem to bother them much. On January 1, 1916, when all freshwater marshes were frozen over, large numbers of them gathered on the Tacoma Flats." Mr. Skinner writes to me that in Yellowstone Park they are found in winter along creeks and rivers kept open by warm springs and on ground overflowed by warm water from the hot springs.
Aiken and Warren (1914) tell of the winter habits of the Wilson snipe, in El Paso County, Colorado, as follows:
Fountain Creek rarely freezes over entirely below its exit from the mountains, and along its banks there are many places where water that runs through the sand comes to the surface and forms springy holes and marshy meadows which are warmer than surface water. These become the winter feeding grounds for the snipe and one or a pair often content themselves with a very small area of muck. But at times of severe cold many of the smaller holes freeze and then the snipe concentrate at places where a larger flow of water keeps the holes open. On January 15, 1908, with 6 inches of snow on the ground and below zero weather Aiken visited a small beaver pond on the Skinner ranch 6 miles south of Colorado Springs. A bit of marsh above the pond and a short stretch of ooze along the outlet below remained open, and in this small area of one-fourth of an acre were 25 to 30 snipe. Some years ago a snipe was found running upon the ice when everything in the vicinity was frozen solid. A few snipe winter along banks of streams in the mountains.
That snipe know enough to protect themselves from the storms
may be illustrated by narrating here one of Aiken's experiences in
Utah about 20 years ago. He was beating a snipe marsh near one
edge of which extended a narrow arroyo or gully in which were some
trees and bushes. The weather had been fair until without warning
a heavy snow storm set in. At once snipe began to rise wildly from
different parts of the marsh and one after another directed their
flight toward the same point in the arroyo and dove between its
banks. Upon investigation 8 or 10 snipe were found together in a
little cave in the side of the arroyo that was partly hidden by
bushes so that they were well protected from any storm. We
conclude this was not the first time the snipe had resorted to
this friendly shelter since they knew so well where to go.
Common Snipe* Gallinago gallinago [Wilson Snipe]
*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1927. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 142 (Part 1): 81-98. United States Government Printing Office