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Wilson's Snipe
Gallinago delicata
– Family
Authors: Mueller, Helmut

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Adult Wilson's Snipe, breeding plumage; Oregon, June
Figure 1. Distribution of Wilson's Snipe in the Western Hemisphere.

One of the most abundant and widespread shorebirds in North America, Wilson’s Snipe breeds in suitable habitats throughout Canada and in the northern United States. Its taxonomic history has been unsettled. Historically considered both a subspecies of the Common Snipe (G. gallinago) and distinct from that species, recent taxonomy has concluded that differences in both winnowing display sounds and morphology allow full specific status for these close relatives (Banks et al. 2002).

This is an elusive species; the usual view of a Wilson's Snipe is as it flushes from grass or sedges, escaping in rapid, zigzag flight while uttering a rasping scaipe. During spring migration, and particularly on the breeding territory, this species engages in spectacular flight displays, during which individuals produce a haunting, tremulous sound (Winnow) with their outspread outer tail-feathers.

The name “snipe” is derived from “snite,” a variant of “snout,” and refers to the long bill of the bird. The French and Spanish names are derived from bec, “beak.” The snipe’s long beak has sensory pits near the tip, a character shared with other sandpipers, which help individuals detect prey as they probe in mud for small invertebrates. The eyes of the snipe are set remarkably far back on its head, providing full vision to both sides and a binocular overlap to the rear. This arrangement enables a bird to detect the approach of a predator while its beak is fully buried in the substrate.

This account is based largely on Leslie Tuck’s (1972) monograph of the species. Tuck studied Wilson’s Snipe for more than 15 years, mostly in Newfoundland but also in Ontario, Louisiana, Florida, and Venezuela. Little has been published on the species in North America since 1972, although considerable work has been done recently on Common Snipe in Eurasia. Marshy habitat, cryptic coloration, and crepuscular habits make for remarkably poor knowledge of this common species.