Common snipe (Gallinago gallinago)
|Also known as:||American snipe, European snipe, snipe, Wilson’s snipe|
|French:||Bécassine des marais|
|Size||Head-body length: 25 – 27 cm (2)|
Wingspan: 44 – 47 cm (2)
|Weight||72 – 181 g (2)|
Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).
The common snipe is a superbly camouflaged bird, most often seen fleeing erratically after being flushed from its concealed location (2) (3). This skulking bird has cryptically patterned, mottled brown upperparts, with pale stripes on the back and dark streaks on the chest, and paler underparts (4). The sexes are alike, although the female may have a slightly longer bill, but the juvenile’s wing feathers are fringed with cream (2) (3). This medium-sized wading bird has short legs, long wings and a short tail, but the most obvious feature of the common snipe, however, is its greatly elongated bill used to probe for invertebrate prey in soft ground (2) (5). During the breeding season, the male common snipe may also be identified by its unique ‘drumming’ sound when, during a rapid descent from a great height, modified outer tail-feathers vibrate rapidly in the wind, emitting a distinct throbbing noise (6).
The common snipe is a widespread wetland bird that breeds at northern latitudes and migrates southwards before the onset of winter. During the breeding season, this elusive bird may be found throughout Alaska and Canada and the west of the United States, and from Iceland, the Faeroe Islands and the United Kingdom, east towards northern Russia and south to northern Spain, Austria, Ukraine, southern Siberia and northern China. At other times of the year, it may also be found in Central America, northern South America, sub-Saharan Africa, central and southern Europe, and South and Southeast Asia. Some populations, however, such as those in the western United States and western Europe, may remain at the same location year-round (3) (7) (8).
During the breeding season, the common snipe inhabits fresh and brackish marshlands with a combination of grassy cover and rich, moist soils, often at the edges of lakes, rivers and swamps. Outside the breeding season, it inhabits similar areas, but with more use of artificial habitats, such as wet farmland and drainage ditches, and coastal areas, including the upper reaches of estuaries (2) (7).
Using its greatly elongated bill, the common snipe probes under the moist substrate for its insect, earthworm, crustacean or spider prey (2). Food on the surface may be located by sight and picked up, but prey under the ground is located using the touch-sensitive sensory pits at the tip of the flexible bill (3) (5). Smaller food items are swallowed whole, while larger items are broken into smaller pieces before consumed (3). The common snipe typically feeds at dawn and dusk, often in small groups, on land or in shallow water, but usually does not stray far from cover (2).
The common snipe breeds between April and August, with the males arriving at the breeding site up to two weeks before the females (3) (7). Initially, the female bird is courted by several males, but once the female selects a nest site, a permanent bond is formed with a single male. The pair bond is reinforced with a variety of courtship displays, including a ‘winnowing’ flight, which involves a slow ascent in a wide circle, before a rapid descent back to the ground (3). A simple nest, which is no more than a scrape in the ground lined with grass, is subsequently constructed by the female in a dry, elevated position concealed by long grasses (2) (3) (7). A small territory is defended around this nest by both birds and intruders are repelled by ‘winnowing’ flights, and on occasions when fight ensues, bill jousting (2) (3). Two to five eggs are laid at intervals of one day and incubated by the female for some 17 to 20 days (2). The chicks soon leave the nest after hatching, with the male taking half the chicks, and the female taking the other half. There is no further contact between the breeding birds, but they both carefully tend the accompanying chicks (3) (9). The young birds fledge after around a further 20 days, when they are capable of flight (7).
Although the common snipe has an extremely large range and a large population, which may be as high as several million birds, this species is declining across much of its range (7). This is largely due to the conversion and drainage of wetlands, with lower water levels shortening the length of the common snipe’s breeding season and altering the availability of prey (2) (7). Some island populations are also threatened by nest predation by introduced predators, such as hedgehogs, while other populations are threatened by pollution, peat-extraction and changing land-management practices leading to scrub overgrowth (7). The common snipe is also regularly hunted for food and sport, with over a million birds killed annually in Europe and around half a million in the United States (2) (3).
In Europe, there has been a long history of land management practices aimed at improving the availability of nesting and foraging habitat for the common snipe so that it can be hunted sustainably. Typically, the water levels of wetlands are regulated and vegetation is cut or burnt, increasing the area of shallow water in which it can forage (2) (3). The common snipe is also listed under Appendix II of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species, which aims to conserve migratory species throughout their range (10). Furthermore, it is also listed under the associated African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement, which calls upon parties to engage in a range of conservation actions to help protect and conserve bird species that are dependent on wetlands for at least part of their annual cycle (11).
To find out more about the conservation of waterbirds, see:
The Waterbird Society:
For more information on this and other bird species please see:
- BirdLife International:
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- Brackish: slightly salty water, usually a mixture of salt and freshwater, such as that found in estuaries.
- Crustaceans: diverse group of animals with jointed limbs and a hard exoskeleton, characterised by the possession of two pairs of antennae, one pair of mandibles (mouthparts used for handling and processing food) and two pairs of maxillae (appendages used in eating, which are located behind the mandibles). Includes crabs, lobsters, shrimps and barnacles.
- Cryptic colouration: colouration that makes animals difficult to detect against their background. The colouration may provide camouflage against a background or break up the outline of the body. Both can occur in a single animal, and tend to reduce predation.
- Incubate: to keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
- Territory: an area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a colony.
IUCN Red List (July, 2010)
- del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (2001) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
Meuller, H. (1999) Wilson’s snipe (Gallinago delicate). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca: Available at:
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (July, 2010)
- Perrins, C. (2009) The Encyclopedia of Birds. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Headley, H.D. (1904) The drumming of the snipe. Nature, 70: 103.
BirdLife International (July, 2010)
Critical Site Network Tool (July, 2010)
NatureServe Explorer (July, 2010)
Convention on Migratory Species (July, 2010)
African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (July, 2010)