Are some birds too small to hunt?

My first night at Boy Scout summer camp many years ago, I was rousted from my sleeping bag to go on a snipe hunt. It was just a ploy to get first timers lost in the woods at night. Older scouts oversaw the event to be sure no one really got lost, and I learned later that an adult was on watch nearby.

Of course we found no snipe, and looking back I’m sure everyone thought it was great fun to watch the tenderfeet search for a “mythical” creature. But serious naturalists know that snipe are real. In fact, Wilson’s snipe is classified as a webless migratory game bird.

Over the last 30 years I’ve seen snipe in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado, Utah, Oklahoma and Mexico. Snipe are shorebirds, kin to woodcock. But unlike timber-doodles, which prefer wet woodlands and bottoms, snipe favor wetter areas on the edges of bogs, swamps and marshes. I’ve often seen them in wet meadows and roadside ditches inundated by spring rains. When flushed, they fly in a distinctive zigzag pattern.

Snipe, like woodcock, measure about 11 inches long and at about 3½-ounces, they are svelte compared to chunky woodcock, which weigh about seven ounces. A striped head, rusty tail, and otherwise cryptic brownish-gray markings make snipe fairly easy to recognize.

Where to look

Look for snipe early or late in the day on mudflats probing the muck for earthworms, insect larva, crayfish, and even small frogs. On the edges of salt water bays and salt marshes, they hunt for small crabs. Spines on the base of the tongue and backward-projecting serrations on the inside of the upper bill help move prey items along the 2½-inch bill and into the gullet. After digesting a meal, snipe regurgitate small pellets of indigestible parts — shells, bones, and bits of exoskeleton.

A snipe’s breast muscle weighs about 25 percent of its entire body, so less than an ounce of edible meat per bird seems hardly worth time and effort to hunt them. My father would have said, “It’s gonna take a lot of snipe to make a meal.”

When I started hunting at age 12, Pop made sure I could shoot and handle a gun safely, and he insisted that we eat anything we killed.

“That’s the only reason to take a life,” he said.

Pop enjoyed hunting pheasants and cottontails, and mom could make a meal from either one. He said smaller species, “just aren’t worth the cost of shells. Besides, shooting a three-ounce bird wouldn’t leave behind much more than a puff of feathers.”

Snipe numbers

Most hunters today seem to agree. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which manages migratory game birds, reports that the snipe harvest in 2009 ranged from about 100 birds in Ohio and West Virginia to 400 in Pennsylvania, 600 in New York, and 4,700 in Michigan.

Nationwide, the total snipe harvest was about 83,500. Though snipe are small, they are not the smallest migratory game birds. Virginia rails and soras (another small rail) average three and 2.6 ounces respectively. Even compared to some common backyard species, these are small birds.

Crows weigh 16 oz.; flickers, 4.6 oz.; and killdeer, 3.3 oz. Fortunately, hunting does not pose a threat to populations of these tiny game birds. Few hunters bother. Rails are hard to find, difficult to flush, and they are erratic flyers. Only the best and most determined hunters pursue these small migratory birds.

In 2009, U.S. hunters killed a total of 12,500 soras and 500 Virginia rails. The majority of the soras killed (6,400) came from the Atlantic Flyway. Sixty percent of the Virginia rail harvest also came from the Atlantic Flyway. Most rails are killed in coastal state marshes.

Hunting seasons for snipe, woodcock, and Virginia and sora rails typically run from early to mid fall. Check with your state wildlife agency for open season dates and bag limits. And remember, hunting migratory game birds requires a regular state hunting license, a Federal Migratory Bird and Conservation Stamp (Duck Stamp), and in some states a special state Migratory Bird License.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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