Swamp Birds: American Woodcock and Wilson’s Snipe

When the American woodcock and Wilson's snipe are not lurking in wet, marshy places, these odd birds can be spotted dancing in the sky.

Meet the American Woodcock and Wilson’s Snipe

Snipe 6867highres (1)Christine Haines
A Wilson’s snipe displays ruffled feathers as it wades through murky water.

Timberdoodle. Night partridge. Mudbat. Labrador twister. Marshdoodle. Bogsucker. No, we aren’t talking about imaginary creatures from a fantasy novel. Those are real nicknames for two of North America’s most remarkable birds, the American woodcock and Wilson’s snipe.

These two are alike in having round bodies, short legs, short necks, big heads and very long, straight beaks. Technically the woodcock and snipe are classified as members of the sandpiper family, but you won’t find them on sandy beaches. Instead, they hide in marshes and swamps or deep in the woods. It takes a serious effort to get to know them.

Range and Habitat: Secretive, Solitary Sulkers

American Woodcock, Scolopax Minor, At Wildcare In Noble, Oklahoma.Alamy Stock Photo
An American woodcock’s eyes are high on its head to keep a careful watch for predators while it forages.

Wilson’s snipes lurk in marshes and wet meadows, sometimes venturing out along edges of muddy ponds; American woodcocks hide on the ground inside leafy forests and thickets by day, venturing out into overgrown fields at night. Even when they’re out in the daylight, these birds are difficult to spot. They wear cryptic patterns of buff, brown and black. When they sit still, their camouflage blends in perfectly against a background of dry marsh grass or dead leaves on the forest floor.

Although usually unseen by most people, American woodcocks are common in the eastern states and southeastern Canada, mostly east of the Great Plains. Wilson’s snipes are found from coast to coast across Alaska, Canada and the northern states in summer, migrating south to spend winter throughout the central and southern states and deep into Mexico.

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What Do American Woodcocks and Wilson’s Snipes Eat?

Shutterstock 315634652Shutterstock / FotoRequest
When on the hunt, Wilson’s snipes dip down, using their sensitive bills to catch worms, bug larvae, snails, crustaceans and the occasional frog or fish.

The long, straight bills of snipes and woodcocks provide a clue to their feeding behavior. They locate food with their sense of touch. The tip of the bill is very sensitive, so when a bird plunges it into the mud, it can feel earthworms, grubs, snails and small creatures moving around. And the upper mandible of the bill is flexible, so these odd birds can open up their bills just at the tip to grab something deep underground.

With eyes located high on their heads, they can watch for danger even when their bills are pointing down.

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Flamboyant Fliers: Dances and Sounds

american woodcockSteve and Dave Maslowski
Identify an American woodcock by its thin facial stripes, distinct shape and cinnamon underbelly.

At first glance, they don’t look like skilled fliers. If you surprise a woodcock on the ground, it whirs off through the woods on short, rounded wings. The snipe leaps up from the mud and zigzags away as if it can’t decide which way to go. Both species seem reluctant to fly most of the time.

But on nights in early spring, they perform impressive sky dances. The male woodcock starts his performance around dusk by standing on an open patch of ground and calling a loud, buzzy pzeent!  several times per minute. Then he abruptly launches into the air and flies almost straight up, rising more than 100 feet above ground before he levels off. Then moving in a slow, fluttering circle against the darkening sky, he makes a thin, high-pitched twittering sound, punctuated with sharp chirps.

American Woodcock Calling Peent During Spring Courtship. Image Shot 03/2011. Exact Date Unknown.William Leaman/Alamy Stock Photo
A male American woodcock uses a unique call (and dance) to attract potential mates.

After a minute or two he abruptly stops and dives toward the ground, landing exactly where he started, and begins making pzeent notes again. He may do this dozens of times during the first part of the night and again near dawn.

Wilson’s snipes are faster fliers than woodcocks. The male may perform day or night, but even in daylight he can be difficult to spot as he zooms around the sky in huge circles. He’s easy to hear, though, because every so often he goes into shallow dives while making a loud, hollow, quivering trill, often referred to as winnowing. The whole presentation isn’t as fancy as the woodcock’s artful display, but it may last longer. The male snipe sometimes zips around, winnowing, for more than half an hour at a time.

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Feather Sounds

Woodcock 4young D 1571Steve and Dave Maslowski
American woodcock chicks start their lives in an unrefined nest. It’s placed on the exposed ground, and features only a shallow bowl.

As if the aerial displays of these birds weren’t bizarre enough, they make sounds in flight not with their voices, but with certain feathers. On the male woodcock, the three outermost feathers on each wing are very narrow. They vibrate in flight to make a twittering sound. On the snipe it’s the outermost tail feathers that are shaped to vibrate. The bird can control the airflow across those feathers by the way it beats its wings, creating the loud winnowing notes that echo across the marshes.

In their own ways, woodcocks and snipes dance in the sky to attract and woo mates and to assert their claims to a nesting territory. The flight displays and musical feathers are meant to impress others of their kind. But they’re also impressive for humans who are lucky enough to witness these elegant acts.

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Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman
Kenn and Kimberly are the official Birds & Blooms bird experts. They are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world. When they're not traveling, they enjoy watching birds and other wildlife in their Northwest Ohio backyard. Fascinated with the natural world since the age of 6, Kenn has traveled to observe birds on all seven continents, and has authored or coauthored 14 books about birds and nature, including include seven titles in his own series, Kaufman Field Guides, designed to encourage beginners by making the first steps in nature study as easy as possible. His next book, The Birds That Audubon Missed, is scheduled to be published by Simon & Schuster in May 2024. Kenn is a Fellow of the American Ornithological Society, and has received the American Birding Association’s lifetime achievement award twice. Kimberly is the Executive Director of Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) in northwest Ohio. She became the Education Director in 2005 and Executive Director in 2009. As the Education Director, Kimberly played a key role in building BSBO’s school programs, as well as the highly successful Ohio Young Birders Club, a group for teenagers that has served as a model for youth birding programs. Kimberly is also the co-founder of The Biggest Week In American Birding, the largest birding festival in the U.S. Under Kimberly’s leadership, BSBO developed a birding tourism season in northwest Ohio that brings an annual economic impact of more than $40 million to the local economy. She is a contributing editor to Birds & Blooms Magazine, and coauthor of the Kaufman Field Guides to Nature of New England and Nature of the Midwest. Accolades to her credit include the Chandler Robbins Award, given by the American Birding Association to an individual who has made significant contributions to education and/or bird conservation. In 2017, she received a prestigious Milestone Award from the Toledo Area YWCA. Kimberly serves on the boards of Shores and Islands Ohio and the American Bird Conservancy.