Great snipe (Gallinago media)

French: Bécassine double
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderCharadriiformes
FamilyScolopacidae
GenusGallinago (1)
SizeLength: 27 – 29 cm (2)
Wingspan: 47 – 50 cm (2)
Weight140 – 260 g (2)

The great snipe is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1), and listed on Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (3).

Like the other 15 species of snipe, the great snipe is a beautifully camouflaged wading bird (4). The bulky great snipe has brown, patterned plumage, with extensive dark barring on the white underside (2). The feathers at the leading edge of the wing have bold, white tips, and the corners of the tail are also white (2). The long, pointed, two-toned bill, characteristic of snipes (4), has a slight droop towards the tip (2). Females are, on average, significantly larger than male great snipes, but their plumage is very similar. The only place where they do differ is in the tail, with males generally possessing longer tails with a greater amount of white (5).

The great snipe breeds in two separate areas; a western population breeds in the Scandinavian mountains and an eastern population is distributed from Poland, throughout the Baltic States, Ukraine and Belarus, and west Russia to the Yenisey River in Siberia. It winters in sub-Saharan Africa, stopping at a few sites between its breeding and wintering areas (2) (6).

While breeding, the great snipe has fairly specific habitat requirements and requires a habitat rich in invertebrates with some scrub cover. It usually occurs in wide river valleys, meadows, peatland, tundra with scattered bushes and, less often, woodland adjacent to marshes or bogs. Outside of the breeding season, the great snipe inhabits marshland, grass or sedges on lake edges or flooded fields (2)

The great snipe feeds singly or in small groups, often under the cover of darkness, using its long, pointed bill to probe the soil or shallow water for food. Its diet consists primarily of earthworms, but the great snipe also consumes gastropods, terrestrial insect larvae and adults, and seeds, mainly of marsh plants (2).

In the breeding season, the most fascinating behaviour of this bird can be observed. The great snipe is a lekking species, meaning that males gather after sunset at a display ground, or lek, and compete with each other for the attention of females. The competition takes the form of an elaborate display performed on top of a small mound, in which the white feathers of the tail are distinctly advertised (2). Females visit the lek solely for the purpose of mating and select a male based on a number of possible characteristics. Females mate with males in the centre of the lek more than those around the outside (7), and seem to prefer males with more white on their tails (8). In addition, males that displayed more intensely obtained more matings, and vocalisations also play an important role (7).

As in other lekking species, the male great snipes take no part in parental care following mating (7). The female is solely responsible for building a nest, incubating the eggs and caring for the young. The nest is a shallow depression in the ground, situated amongst thick vegetation, and lined with moss or grass. An average of four eggs are laid and incubated for 22 to 24 days. The young become independent at 21 to 28 days of age, immediately after fledging (2).

In early August, after the breeding season, great snipes leave their European breeding grounds and begin the impressive migration to sub-Saharan Africa. Here they remain until March or April, when they must undertake the great journey again (2).

During the late 19th and early 20th century, numbers of great snipe declined dramatically, and the species disappeared from the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Finland and the lowlands of Sweden and Norway. During this period, populations also decreased in other parts of its breeding range (6). This is believed to primarily be the result of the loss and deterioration of important floodplain meadow and marshland habitat (2). Similarly, in southern Africa, the great snipe used to be more abundant and widespread, but is now only recorded regularly in the north-central region (9). While the Scandinavian population is now thought to have stabilised, the eastern breeding population still faces significant threats. The main threat is changes to agricultural practices in the region; this may take the form of, for example, land abandonment, transforming land for intensive agriculture, and urban development; all factors that will alter the specific habitat required by the great snipe. In addition, there are a number of other threats impacting this species in certain parts of its range including hunting, disturbance from tourism and fishing, and climate change (6).

The great snipe is legally protected in all breeding countries except for the Russian Federation, Ukraine and Belarus (6). This species is also listed on Annex 2 of the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA). The agreement, developed under the Convention of Migratory Species (CMS), calls upon member countries to engage in a wide range of conservation actions for 235 species of migratory birds dependent on wetlands for at least part of their annual cycle (10). Out of this agreement arose an International Single Species Action Plan for the great snipe. Developed in 2004, the plan outlined a number of conservation measures required to remove the great snipe from the Near Threatened category of the IUCN Red List (6).

For further information on the great snipe see:

For more information on this and other bird species please see:

Authenticated (19/03/08) by Jacob Höglund, Department of Ecology and Evolution, Population Biology, Uppsala Universitet, Sweden.
http://www.popbiol.ebc.uu.se/default.php?type=personalpage&id=3&lang=en

  1. IUCN Red List (December, 2007)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1996) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. CMS (February, 2008)
    http://www.cms.int/index.html
  4. Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  5. Höglund, J., Kålås, J.A. and Løfaldli, L. (1990) Sexual dimorphism in the lekking great snipe. Ornis Scandinavica, 21(1): 1 - 6.
  6. Kålås, J.A. (2004) International Single Species Action Plan for the Conservation of the Great Snipe. Gallinago media. Technical Series No. 5. UNEP/AEWA Secretariat, Bonn, Germany.
  7. Höglund, J. and Lundberg, A. (1987) Sexual selection in a monomorphic lek-breeding bird: correlates of male mating success in the great snipe Gallinago media. Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology, 21: 211 - 216.
  8. Höglund, J., Eriksson, M. and Lindell, L.E. (1990) Females of the lek-breeding great snipe, Gallinago media, prefer males with white tails. Animal Behaviour, 40(1): 23 - 32.
  9. Sinclair, I. and Hockey, P. (2007) The Larger Illustrated Guide to the Birds of Southern Africa. Struik Publishers, Cape Town, South Africa.
  10. African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (February, 2008)
    http://www.unep-aewa.org/home/index.htm