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By Sigrid Olson

No Fallacies on Potomac Snipes


Sigrid Olson, Pathfinder

A Wilson's Snipe perched on a fence in Potomac this spring.

POTOMAC - Like clockwork from May to June, small brownish birds with long legs and long beaks are seen on fence posts and in wet grasses near water around Potomac. The 'snipe hunt' has been told as a fool's errand by pranking people. It has also been spoken of in Native American legends and portrayed as a colorful bird in the movie 'Up' as well as mentioned in an autobiographical children's novel.

The local Wilson's Snipe is a type of sandpiper bird in the family Scolopacidae. It is a species of wading bird and despite the mythical history, it does exist throughout the Blackfoot Watershed.

According to Native American bird legends, the snipe is a symbol of water and storms. The Hopi name for the snipe bird is Patszro, which means water bird. Its call is believed to bring rain.

In the Koasati creation myth, the snipe released sickness into the world. It is also used as a clan animal among some tribes including Ojibwe, Cayuga, Onondaga and Tuscarora tribes.

In the 1937 publication "On the Banks of Plum Creek", author Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote of watching snipes walking on their long, thin legs as she and her sister walked to the country school. The other students called the girls long-legged snipes because their dresses were short. "Their bare legs did look long and spindly, like snipes' legs and all the boys were pointing and yelling, 'Snipes! Snipes!'" wrote Wilder.

The local snipes are found near water but with their tan and brown camouflaged coloring they are hard to spot in the wetland plants.

Snipes have special bills that enable them to slurp their food. The bill is long and sensitive with many nerve endings. Snipes eat insect larvae, flies, beetles, crickets, ants, grasshoppers and small invertebrates including snails and worms.

When alarmed, the snipe emits a cry while darting across the sky. They can also be heard "winnowing" as they fly up and then dive at dusk, causing the air to rush over the outstretched tail feathers. Males perform the winnowing flight to defend territory and attract mates. Females also winnow prior to breeding.

In the Blackfoot Watershed snipes live year-round and are also migrant. Snipes are scarcely seen in winter but seem to overwinter in the western third of the state.

No banding studies have been conducted on breeding pairs residency but sightings show that migrants move through the state in April and October, according to Birds of Montana.

Female snipes lay their eggs in a shallow hole in damp earth lined with grasses. She will lay two to four eggs at a time with an incubation up to 20 days before hatching. Nests have been found May to July. After hatching, snipe chicks leave the nest and can be seen June to August.

And going on a snipe hunt? It's real.

According to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, snipes are a migratory, webless bird. The hunting season for snipe is statewide from Sept. 1 to Dec. 16 with a bag limit of eight daily and 16 in possession.

In 15 years of survey data from the Fish and Wildlife Service, eight of the 15 showed harvest estimates between 100 and 400 with two years less than 50 and two years more than 3,000.

The snipe is small in stature but large in legend. Between the stories, their unique calls, meals, and myths, snipes add interesting touches to the landscape.


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