The Snipe Hunt: Myth and Reality

Snipe hunting is just a practical joke, right? Well, not quite. Ornithologist Joe Smith shows how ornithologists utilize "snipe hunting" tactics in their field research. Seriously.

There is a common belief that a “snipe hunt” is some sort of wild goose chase, a hazing ritual for naïve outdoors folk.

Consider the Wikipedia entry on the topic:

“A snipe hunt, a made up hunt that is also known as a fool’s errand, is a type of practical joke that involves experienced people making fun of credulous newcomers by giving them an impossible or imaginary task. The origin of the term is a practical joke where inexperienced campers are told about a bird or animal called the snipe as well as a usually preposterous method of catching it, such as running around the woods carrying a bag or making strange noises such as banging rocks together.”

The truth of the mythical snipe hunt is that the “fake” tools and techniques a rube is supposed to use are actual tools and techniques for catching real snipe. 

The Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary pages cite moonless nights, spotlights, noisemakers, and gunny sacks.  Yes!

These are the tools of the trade for a bird-catching tradition that goes back a very long way.

I first learned about snipe hunt techniques from famed Indian bird trapper Ali Hussein.  He comes from a long line of bird trappers who once caught birds for profit.

Ali Hussein
Ali Hussein

As times changed, Ali developed a conservation ethic and began using his deep knowledge and experience to catch birds for science instead.

I met Ali at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park while he was on a world tour of biological stations, traveling with a translator and a passel of trapping gear (made mostly from bamboo and other natural materials) to share his skills and knowledge with biologists.

One of the simpler techniques Ali demonstrated was the “torch and gong.” The bird trapper takes advantage of a moonless night to find water birds (such as snipe) carrying a flaming torch while beating a disorienting gong to obscure the sounds of the approaching trapper.

When the bewildered bird is spotted, a net is thrown over it to catch it.  A snipe hunt, plain and simple.

The snipe hunting tradition has continued in wildlife research, with updated tools and techniques.  For example a 1959 report from the Illinois Natural History survey outlines the snipe-hunting method (they call it “night-lighting”) using a truck driven through a field with a generator-powered bank of spotlights, with a trapper riding on the hood carrying a long-handled net.

Scientists use a spotlight and large net to capture birds at night. Variations of this technique are still used in the field.
Scientists use a spotlight and large net to capture birds at night. Variations of this technique are still used in the field.

And even now, right here in Cape May,  a multi-year study of migrating and wintering woodcock (a very similar bird to snipe) employs the snipe-hunt technique (or if you prefer, the torch and gong, night-lighting, or in Ali’s language, luki-phanna) as their primary capture technique.

At some woodcock trapping sites, the snipe are numerous as well. Once in a while the woodcock trappers scoop up a snipe, just to prove that snipe hunting is by no means a fool’s errand.

Woodcock, a similar bird, can also be captured using
Woodcock, a similar bird, can also be captured using “snipe hunting” tactics. Photo: Wayne Russell

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  1. Shelly Tippett says:

    When our 3 grandsons ( ages15,11 and 8 years) were visiting us in Bozeman, MT last month, we thought they might enjoy an evening of snipe hunting. Since they are seldom without their smartphones, I figured they would Google it (to get more tips on catching snipes) and the jig would be up. But, they spent an hour or two gamely walking backwards dragging an open pillowcase and banging two rocks together. We figured it was too late in the summer to catch any but maybe next time will be better! When we had this hunt with our children when they were pre-teens, one son was angry when it was discovered what the joke was all about. But luckily, our grandsons have a better sense of humor…we hope! They are still unaware of the ruse.

  2. Derek Mogambo says:

    Hail the Honorable Snipe & the True Believers that chase them (for non-lethal research purposes, of course~!)

    Do sandpipers (as found along the Greater Gulf Coast of North America) count as snipe, or snipe-like wading waterfowl?

    1. Lisa Feldkamp says:

      Thank you for the question Derek! Our resident birder Justine E. Hausheer responds – “There are two species in the US w/ “snipe” in their common name (Wilson’s and Common) plus the rare Eurasian visitor (Jack Snipe) and the American Woodcock, which is closely related. All species are related to shorebirds (like sandpipers), but are not the same as snipe. All four of the species above are found in freshwater habitats, while shorebirds are a mix of fresh/salt/brackish depending on the species and time of year.” I would add that you can find information on all of these birds at Cornell’s All About Birds site, starting with Wilson’s Snipe:

  3. Wstypick says:

    I enjoyed this much more than I though I would haha. Thank you for good info!

  4. Iris Eng says:

    Dad was 61 years young when I was born. He was a WWI Veteran. Dad had quite a sense of humor. He told me about days that were much simpler. For fun, the older boys would always send the young boys on “snipe hunts”. Dad had been told ahead of time (by someone who liked him) that there really wasn’t a snipe to hunt for. So, when he was given a gunnysack and told to go hunting for the illusive snipe he went along with it. Dad told me he beat the guys back with his gunnysack because of the wise advice he was given. It’s really GREAT to know that there truly is a snipe to hunt after all these years. I am now the age Dad was when I was born! Thanks for posting this.

  5. Dennis Keith says:

    When I was a youngster in Northwest Florida, we spent a lot of time playing i wooded areas. On occasion we would actually jump a snipe. It looked and reacted much like a quail, except for its long beak. We would be walking quietly and he would fly up when we would almost step on it and give us quite a startle! Here in south Texas, people still don’t even believe such a bird actually exists!

  6. Cass McFarlane says:

    Our Pastor had my 12yr old daughter and her friend convinced they were the best snipe callers he’d ever heard. The girls were begging for a camping trip so they could try out their newly found talent. I let her believe it for a week the I showed her this article. Good times lol.

  7. Amanda Campbell says:

    My family thinks they are not real.

  8. J says:

    Love it, I remember this as a kid, I was like, “this is NOT how to catch a bird” and the adults were like, “k, go give your bag to your cousin and go in the house”. I’m not sure which was better, watching people play cards or running around in the dark hunting snipe, na I should’ve pretended to be catching snipe.

  9. Mary J. Neu says:

    Why are they hunting Snipe? Is it a food source? I always thought my mother was joking with us when she would say “Go West and shoot Snipes.” Until I got into my adult years and learned Snipes were real and not a word she just made up!!!

    1. Lisa Feldkamp says:

      Yes, people do hunt them to eat. I don’t know firsthand, but I imagine it is similar to the related and similarly sized woodcock (which is hunted more commonly for food in the US). Thank you!

  10. Lance Peavy says:

    My 2 older brothers introduced me and the cousins to the “mythical” snipe hunt. It consisted of a trip in the woods by the house at night rustling a paper sack around because that aroused the snipe to run into the sack (mating ritual maybe, haha)… Then of course they took off back to the house leaving us out in the dark woods. I did know there was a real Snipe because daddy and I were bird watchers. It was a cruel trick but fun.
    On the other hand about 20 years ago or so I was outside at dusk and a Snipe flew within 6 feet of my head and it was the size of a small chicken… No kidding 🙂