Birds & Birding

The Snipe Hunt: Myth and Reality

January 14, 2014

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Practical jokes aside, scientists do catch snipe. Photo © Matt Miller/TNC

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

Joe Smith, PhD, explores the lives of the birds around us by sharing insights from scientific research. As an ecologist for a New Jersey-based conservation services company, he helps to restore coastal ecosystems and the migratory birds that depend on them. Joe lives in the birding hotspot of Cape May, NJ and has done field research with birds throughout the U.S. and Latin America. He writes about nature in his backyard at More from Joe

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  1. 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. 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. 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. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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. 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!

  8. 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 🙂

  9. I loved this story and comments, so much fun! Although I may not have been as good a sport as many here, I too would have rather been running around the woods at night than inside playing cards for the summer.

  10. Thanks so much for sharing this information! I always thought a snipe was a myth because of all the snipe hunting tricks on campers, etc. Thanks for separating fact from fiction and including your clear, beautiful photo!

  11. This was a right-of-passage type thing that
    A) Kept inexperienced “Hunter” safe.
    B) Kept him in range as subject is usually 8 to 10 years old, mostly male but also inexperienced female hunters are also given this right.
    C) No one gets hurt, as hollering “Here Snipe” and smacking your bag with a stick or net pole will result in no dangerous (or any) animals will be within 50 miles of me or “subject”.
    D) after an hour, I discovered my father and his friends laughing hysterically every time I yelled “Here Snipe” So the gig was up.

    To me, it was a fable, and a right of passage. I proudly brought my 410 gauge bird-shotgun, but no father in his right mine was going to let a 10 year old go off in the woods at night with it, possibly shooting myself, or them by accident. It also allowed them to pass around the flask a bit more frequently before I returned, we laughed TOGETHER, everyone patted me on the back, and these were all vets. I felt a little closer to being a man that night, and I will never forget it.

  12. I had no idea there was a real Snipe and the methods for capture were just as odd until today. Nice to know.

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

    Which is demonstrably true.

    Somehow I think you’ve misunderstood this or are willfully misinterpreting it

  14. We use to shoot snipe sometimes when we were quail hunting in Northwest Florida above Pensacola near the Alabama line. They would be near the creeks and wet branches while they were hunting for worms and grubs near the wet areas. I remember back in the mid 60’s we took two brothers on the night time snipe hunt. There were 8 of all together. The six of us put the two brothers out in a ditch and told them the snipe would run down the ditch right into their sacks. We told them to whistle and that would make them come into the sack. We did this for about 2 hours. The brothers were holding that sack while we were sitting at the campfire laugh while they were whistling for the birds. Boy they sure got mad at us when we told them the truth. It was a great time for all for a bunch of young guys growing up in the country. I still love telling this story today.

  15. I have seen woodcocks in the woods, they look like a cross between quail and snipe. They can fly with their head upright and long pointy beak horizontal.

    1. I’ve seen them fly with their head upright and their long pointy beak vertical, not horizontal (my other horizontal. lol).

  16. Very informative & clear.
    Wonder why addition of ‘gutter’ for gutter-snipe developed.. Good work

  17. I’m here to report that I have four times observed the Woodcock . Three times at such close quarters that , if I had tried I could have reached out and touched them.
    The fourth time was very unusual. Driving to work at the Historic Site in Forestville State Park in SE Minnesota, I saw four newly hatched woodcock chicks clustered on the side of the road. It was a cold Spring, so mom had put them up on the blacktop to get warm. I rolled down the window and told ’em I thought it was a dangerous decison. Momma appeared out of the grass, gathered her babies and led them into the woods. They were adorable little fuzz balls! How often do they reveal themselves so to intimately? I felt very privileged to be so graced.