For the Birds Radio Program: Snipe

Original Air Date: June 13, 1994

In response to a listener’s question, Laura takes us on a snipe hunt. 3:41

Audio missing


A June morning is always more enjoyable when accompanied by the music of snipe. These long-billed birds of wetlands make a harsh chirping sound when earth bound, but in the air they make an ethereal sound which, for lack of a better word, we call “winnowing.”

I received a letter a couple of weeks ago from a listener in LaPorte, Minnesota, asking about a whirring sound, somewhat like a Mourning Dove in flight, which she hears mainly during late evenings and before sunrise in spring. She wrote:

The sound came from the west. As i looked in that direction, it seemed to come from the north. Each time I turned, the sound moved, so I was thoroughly mystified. Help!

That’s the tricky thing about snipe—they make the sound from the darkened sky, and are so quick and elusive that we’re lucky to catch a glimpse at their silhouette as they zip past. Their winnowing trick is so difficult to observe in its entirety that American and European ornithologists debated for decades about how exactly snipe even make this sound. Obviously most bird sounds are vocalizations, but the chittering sounds made by flying woodcock, the drumming of grouse, the whistling of goldeneye, the droning of hummingbirds, and the clapping of pigeons are all produced by wing feathers.

American scientists figured the winnowing of snipe must also be produced by the wings. But European scientists insisted that the only explanation for unusually stiff outer tail feathers of snipe had to be that they produce the sound with their tails. American scientists derided them, saying sound obviously cannot be produced with tail feathers—it’s simply not done that way. But field studies finally proved that the snipe really is the bird with the singing tail. A male ascends up to 300 feet above the ground, sets his wings, spreads his stumpy tail, and swoops, all to attract the attention and affection of a female. They mainly are interested in female snipe, of course, but they easily attract my attention and affection as well. Unwittingly, one snipe managed to attract the attention and affection of Henry David Thoreau, a male who was nonetheless held spellbound by this bird, “fanning the air like a spirit over some far meadow’s bay.”

Snipe eat all kinds of insects and other little critters that they find in the shallow water and mucky soil of good wetlands. Thus, mosquito abatement programs tend to be snipe abatement programs as well. The word “snipe,” which comes from Middle English, probably has Scandinavian origins. Snipe are found throughout Europe as well as America. The word “sniper,” referring to a sharpshooter gunning down people from a concealed location, comes from hunting snipe. To actually bag a snipe or its woodcock relative requires both marksmanship and stealth. Fully grown, a snipe weighs in at a puny three to six ounces. Its music could sustain a person a lot longer than its meat could, but nevertheless it’s a legal game bird in every state. It’s only in folklore that you catch snipe with a bag and stick. Even with a gun it takes a great deal of skill to successfully bag a snipe, but it can’t take much heart.