by Frank Keim
Listen carefully high above you in spring (and sometimes even in fall) and you may be lucky enough to hear the Wilson’s snipe’s haunting winnowing call, woo-woo-woo-woo. You won’t mistake this sound for that of any other bird. It is unearthly, and is produced by fast-moving air vibrating the diving bird’s two outer tail feathers. When the snipe dives at between 24-53 mph, the winnowing sound can be heard for up to a half-mile away.
The noise is mostly a part of the male’s spring mating display over the nesting territory to warn other males to stay away, but is also directed toward his mate below both while courting her and later while she is incubating the eggs on the nest. Interestingly, it may be made by either sex during the early part of the breeding season and sometimes by both sexes at once.
This unusual sound is also the source of one of its Yup’ik names, kukukuaq (imitative of the sound), and even of its Inupiat name, avikiak, which means, “sounds like a walrus.” The Nunivak Island name for the bird, cen’aq, translates loosely as “sandy beach bird.”
The snipe’s scientific name, Capella gallinago, also relates to the sound of its territorial winnowing call. Both words are Latin and mean, “little nanny goat-like chicken,” probably an allusion to its goat-like noise.
At one time the snipe was abundant in North America, especially on its wintering ground in the southern U.S., where it was sadly slaughtered in the late 19th century by market hunters. One hunter in Louisiana killed almost 70,000 snipes in a 20-year period. They are still hunted each fall, but with a strict bag limit. When I taught in Hooper Bay and Scammon Bay, I remember them being hunted by young people and then presented to their elders as gourmet treats.
After choosing her mate, the female quickly goes to work and selects a nest site. With her bill, she scrapes a spot in soft dry ground, then crouches and turns in the scrape with her body to mold mosses and grasses into a cup shape, adding finer grass or sedge for lining. She then lays four dark, spotted, olive-buff-colored eggs in the shape of a cross, which she alone incubates for 18-20 days. Soon after hatching, both parents lead the chicks from the nest and feed and brood them. If a fox or man appears nearby, both adults flutter about as though they were wounded to distract their enemy from the chicks. Within ten days the chicks can fend for themselves and by their 15th day can even fly short distances.
Like their parents, the young get most of their food by plunging their bill straight down into soft earth or mud. The bill is highly flexible and the upper mandible can be raised and curved to seize earthworms and larvae and pull them out of the ground. The bird works its food up the length of its bill with its spiny tongue and backward-projecting serrations on the inside of the upper mandible.
Insects, including their larvae, are about 50 percent of their food, but they also eat small frogs, crabs, snails, earthworms, leeches, spiders, centipedes, and even seeds of sedges and grasses. They follow this daily fare with large amounts of water. Any indigestible parts of the food are burped out in the form of pellets.
The Wilson’s snipe was named after the “father of American ornithology,” Alexander Wilson (1766-1813). It has also been called the Alewife bird, American snipe, bleater, bog snipe, English snipe, gutter snipe, jacksnipe, marsh snipe, meadow snipe, shad bird and shad spirit.
Many years ago, while a teacher in Scammon Bay, I remember walking over to Castle Rocks after an early snowfall in October when suddenly a snipe flew out of the snow in front of me, swiftly zigzagged away for a few hundred feet, then dived back into the snow, probably to keep warm. I’ve observed this behavior a few times since then – which prompted me to call this bird by yet another name, the snow snipe.