Bird of the Month January 2021

Wilson's Snipe

Gallinago delicata


The Wilson’s Snipe is a small, chunky shorebird. They sport a long bill, about as long as the bird is wide, with a black end. Legs are yellow and shorter than most shorebirds. While the coloration is designed for hiding (called cryptic), there are still some distinct features that help identify it. There are three long buff-colored stripes down the back and stripes on the head. They have barred flanks and a white belly. Males and females are similar.

Behavior and Habitat

Wilson’s Snipe are common throughout all of North America, Mexico and Central America during different times. In Idaho, Wilson’s Snipe are residents all year while in Canada and Alaska they are present only during the breeding/brood-rearing season. South of the Great Salt Lake, they are only winter visitors.

Wilson’s snipe are secretive and seldom stray far from the edges of the marsh. However, there is an exception to this rule and that is in the spring when males are displaying. Then they may be seen standing on fenceposts and other elevated perches and calling for mates. Males also take to the sky in a fast zigzagging flight. Their modified tail feathers make a “winnowing” sound that can be heard for long distances.

When nesting, the female will select a site, often on a hummock in the marsh, and lay 2-4 eggs which hatch in about 20 days. The chicks are precocial, leaving the nest the day they hatch.

Wilson’s Snipe are predators of the first order, eating little vegetation. Their diet is mostly invertebrates but they occasionally eat tadpoles, fish, and even nestling birds.

Cool Facts from All About Birds website

  • Wilson’s Snipe look so stocky thanks in part to the extra-large pectoral (breast) muscles that makeup nearly a quarter of the bird’s weight—the highest percentage of all shorebirds. Thanks to their massive flight muscles this chunky sandpiper can reach speeds estimated at 60 miles an hour.
  • Wilson’s Snipe feed by burying their bills deep into soft, wet soil to probe for insect larvae, worms, and other invertebrate prey. The bill’s flexible tip can open to grasp food while the base of the bill stays closed. Snipes can slurp small prey from the mud without having to remove their bill from the soil.
  • Because a Wilson’s Snipe’s eyes are set far back on its head, it can see almost as well behind as in front and to the sides. This arrangement makes it difficult for a potential predator to sneak up on a feeding snipe—it almost literally has “eyes in the back of its head.”
  • The word “sniper” originated in the 1770s among British soldiers in India who hunted snipe as game. The birds are still hunted in many countries, including the U.S., though their fast, erratic flight style means they are difficult targets.
  • Although only the female tends the eggs and nestlings, Wilson’s Snipe parents split up the siblings once they’re ready to fledge. The male takes the two oldest; the female takes the younger two with her. After they leave the nest the mates have no further contact.
  • Researchers have done wind tunnel tests with Wilson’s Snipe feathers to try and duplicate the “winnowing” sound that’s made as birds fly with their tail feathers fanned. They found that it’s the outermost tail feathers, or rectrices, that generate the sound, which apparently happens at airspeeds of about 25 miles per hour.
  • The oldest known Wilson’s Snipe was at least 9 years, 3 months old, based on a band recovered from a bird that was shot in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.

Similar Species

There are a number of species that superficially look like a snipe. However, during the winter months, none of them are present on the refuge. During the spring and summer months, they might be mistaken for short-billed dowitchers, soras or Virginia rails. However, a quick look at your field guide and you will see that the snipe is more striped than the dowitcher and has a longer bill than the soras and rails.

When and where found at Camas NWR

According to the Camas NWR bird list, Wilson’s snipe are one of the few birds that can occasionally be seen in the wintertime. These are secretive birds though and their cryptic coloration makes then hard to see even in winter. Look for them around the edges of ponds that are permanently wet or were wet last year.


“Wilson’s Snipe is widespread and overall populations remained stable between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The global breeding population, which is shared between the U.S. and Canada, is estimated at 2 million individuals. The species is not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. Approximately 105,000 Wilson's Snipe were taken annually by hunters between 2006 and 2010 in the U.S. and Canada combined; this number was probably several times higher during the mid-twentieth century. Wilson’s Snipes depend on wetlands, and draining or conversion of wetlands is detrimental to this species. Other threats include collisions with lighthouses, radio, TV, and cell towers, buildings, and cars.”

Text by Terry Thomas. Source:

Photo by Terry Thomas.