THE Snipes, which include the Wood-Cocks, the True Snipes and the Painted Snipes, form a small section of the large group of Waders (Limicola). In addition to the characters assigned to them at the beginning of this volume, they may be recognised by their peculiar plumage, which is chiefly composed of black, buff and rufous. The Snipes in general are remarkable for their abundance, the sport they afford, and the excellence of their flesh for the table.
In the Wood-Cocks and True Snipes the sexes are alike; in the Painted Snipes the sexes differ in colour. Many of the Snipes have tails of peculiar construction, the outer feathers being frequently very narrow and pin-like. Snipes have but one moult a year, and they undergo no seasonal change of plumage. They vary individually in proportion to the degree in which the margins of the feathers get worn down. The eyes of the Snipes are very large and placed far back in the skull. The birds feed chiefly by night.
Snipes are represented over nearly the whole world. The characters of most importance in separating the species are the general colour of the primaries; the colour of the outer web of the first primary; the marks on the crown of the head; the colour and shape of the tips of the outer secondaries; and lastly the number and shape of the tail-feathers. Snipes' tails, however, are frequently imperfect in some respect or other, and too much reliance must not be placed on this character.
The bill of the Snipes is very sensitive, and there can be little doubt that the food is found chiefly by touch. The closed bill is inserted into the soil again and again till a worm is felt. Having discovered a worm, it becomes necessary to seize it and draw it up to the surface. It is obvious that the long, thin bill of a Snipe is very weak, and that it would not be possible to open it against the pressure of the surrounding soil, in order to grasp the worm. The Snipe, however, and some other Waders, possess the remarkable faculty of being able to raise the terminal portion of the upper mandible, without opening the whole bill. The two mandibles thus become a very serviceable pair of forceps. When a Snipe, therefore, finds a worm, the tip of the upper mandible is raised, and the worm seized and drawn out.
The tip of the upper mandible is raised by means of a pair of muscles attached to some of the bones of the jaw. If a freshly-killed Snipe, or a wounded bird, be taken, and its jaws slightly squeezed together, laterally, by a pressure of a finger and thumb, the tip of the upper mandible can be raised and closed as often as required, and the whole process of seizing a worm can thus be witnessed. The tip of the upper mandible can be raised about a quarter of an inch.*
The Snipes may be divided into three groups:—
WOOD-COCKS.— The sexes alike; the bill straight, the terminal portion pitted with small depressions ; the marks on the crown of the head transverse; the primaries marked with notches of rufous; the bill much longer than the tarsus.
TRUE SNIPES.— The sexes alike; the bill straight, the terminal portion pitted with small depressions; primaries plain; the bill much longer than the tarsus.
PAINTED SNIPES.— The sexes dissimilar; the bill curved near the tip, the terminal portion smooth, not pitted with small depressions; primaries much variegated with bars and spots ; the bill about equal to the tarsus.
* For a fuller explanation of this singular formation of the Snipe's bill, the reader is referred to an interesting paper on the subject by Mr. W. P. Pycraft, in the Ibis (1893, p. 361).