129. THE COMMON SNIPE.
Gallinago gallinago (LINNAEUS).
Tip of the first secondary quill reaching closely to the tips of the primary coverts.
Outer web' of the first primary white. With white margins to the' tips of the outer secondaries, one-tenth of an inch, or more, in width. With a longitudinal pale band on the crown.
All the tail-feathers soft and broad.
VERNACULAR NAMES-.— Chaha, Hind.; Bharka, Bharak, Nepal; Chegga, Khada-Kuchi, Bengal; Tibud, Pan-lawa, Mahrati; Mor-ulan, Ulan, Tamil; Muku-puredi, Telugu; Koaswatuwa, Ceylon; Kada-Kecho, Orissa; Cherayga, Assam; Check lonbi, Manipur; Myay-woot, Suite, Burmese.
THE Common; or Fan-tail Snipe occurs as a winter visitor in every portion of the Empire, including Ceylon, the Andamans, and the Nicobars. It is very unequal in its distribution. Roughly speaking, it is the commonest Snipe in the peninsula of India, from the Himalayas down to the Godavari river. Elsewhere in the peninsula, and throughout the eastern portion of the Empire, it is far less common than the Pin-tail Snipe. But exceptions to this general statement occur. In some parts of Upper Burma, and at certain times, the Common Snipe is predominant, and some bags are composed entirely of this species. Sometimes the bags are composed of equal quantities of the two Snipes. In Lower Burma the Pintail is undoubtedly the commoner species at all times. In Tenasserim the Common Snipe becomes very rare. At the extreme east of the Empire, Lieut. J. H. Whitehead informs me that the Snipes killed at Kengtung are mostly Pin-tails, from which I gather that the Common Snipe also occurs in that locality, but less commonly.
Outside our limits, the Common Snipe has a very wide range, being found in Summer throughout Northern Europe and Asia up to about the 70th degree of latitude, and breeding as far south as the Alps, Southern Russia, Turkestan, and the Himalayas. In winter this species is found over a considerable portion of Northern Africa, in Arabia, Persia, India, and the Malayan countries as far as the Philippine Islands.
Many Snipes of this species appear to summer in the Himalayas, or are perhaps resident there, coming down to lower elevations in the winter, but there is no precise information on this point.
Although the Common Snipe has been shot in India as early as the third week of August, it does not usually arrive in considerable quantities till the commencement of September. Most of these birds return north in March, but in some favourable localities a few birds remain on till April or May or even, very occasionally, till June.
The winter habits of the Common Snipe in India are so well known, or can be so easily investigated, that I do not propose to say much about them. The young sportsman will find that, in the course of a week's shooting, he will learn nearly all that there is to learn about Snipes and their ways in India.
The distribution of the Common Snipe is determined chiefly by the nature of the ground. The extremely sensitive bill of this bird points to the fact that it finds its food in the ground not on it. Consequently the Common Snipe is found only where the ground is soft. It will also be found that this Snipe prefers open country and avoids jungle, and it is therefore almost invariably found on large bare marshes or in extensive plains of paddy-fields. When these dry up, the Common Snipe moves to other marshes. A night's rain may bring them back again.
The Pin-tail is much less dependent on ground and rain-fall. Its bill is much harder and less sensitive, showing that it does not depend so much on touch for finding its food. It is perhaps as fond of soft ground as the Common Snipe; but when the ground dries up it does not move to any great extent, but is content to take up its quarters in some adjoining grass-land, where it is able to subsist on insects that are found on vegetation or on the surface of the ground. It will be noticed that the Pin-tail wanders about much less than the Common Snipe.
A Snipe cannot stand in more than two inches of water, nor can it probe for worms in ground which is at all submerged. Consequently certain wet fields, although presenting the same general appearance from day to day, may at times attract Snipes in large numbers, and at other times, owing to a slight increase of water, be quite unsuitable for them.
The habits of the Common Snipe in summer may be observed in Kashmir, but no Indian sportsman has hitherto written about them at that season, and, consequently, we must consult European writers.
A curious habit of the Common Snipe, chiefly, if not entirely, practised at the breeding season, is that of perching on trees, fences, etc. Messrs. Seebohm and Harvie-Brown write :—" We were not a little surprised when we first became acquainted with the arboreal habits of the Snipe at Habariki, and saw one of those birds perched, seventy feet from the ground, on the topmost upright twig of a bare larch, where, one would have thought, it could scarcely find sufficient foot-hold. With its head lower than its body and tail, it sat there,, uttering at intervals the curious double ' clucking' note, tjick-tjuck, tjick-tjuck, whilst others of the same species were ' drumming' high in air over the marsh. To put it all beyond a doubt, Harvie-Brown shot one in this peculiar position."
Another habit of this Snipe, and one which, in a modified form, seems common to all the Snipes, is that of " drumming " or " bleating " at the breeding season. One sound produced by the Snipe is undoubtedly vocal, the other is produced by the action of the wings or tail, or of both combined. Opinions are much divided with regard to the mode in which these sounds are produced, and many theories have been propounded. Of all the accounts I have read, the one which seems to me to be the most complete in all respects has been given us by Mr. F. Boyes, of Beverley, in the Field of the 9th July, 1898. I reproduce it in full. Mr. Boyes writes :—
" In the correspondence which has taken place in your columns respecting the ' drumming' of the snipe, it has appeared to me that your contributors have confused the vocal notes of the bird with that most peculiar sound which it makes by the aid of its tail and wings. What is known to naturalists as the ' drumming ' or ' bleating' of the snipe is that sound which the bird makes when on the wing and whilst it is descending rapidly and obliquely through the air. Let me describe the ' drumming' of the snipe. We enter the marsh, and before we have gone very far we become conscious of a series of clicking sounds like jick-juck, jick-juck, jick-juck, rapidly repeated, which apparently proceed from some creature on the ground. We follow these up, and as we draw near, what should rise just in front of us but a veritable, common snipe, which, after flying some distance, rises up in the air uttering the same peculiar notes which first attracted our attention. As we watch it rising upward it is repeating these vocal notes all the time, but after attaining a sufficient altitude it suddenly turns, and with wings shaking or trembling, and tail widely spread, the feathers of which seem to be turned somewhat sideways and are distinctly seen to be vibrating, the bird shoots rapidly and obliquely downwards for some distance, and it is then—whilst it is making this sudden swoop—that the peculiar sound called ' drumming' is heard. Those who have heard this peculiar sound in the distance, say, on a still summer's evening, with the birds in the sky invisible, may well be excused for likening the sounds to the bleating of a lamb on some distant upland. ' That the sound is produced by the vibration of the feathers in their rapid passage through the air is unquestionable, for a similar sound can be produced by striking a boy's thin wooden sword rapidly downward, the resistance of the air causing it to vibrate and give out a peculiar sound similar in tone to that of the bird; and those who have spent much time in the marshes must have heard at one time or another the wind playing through the broad-leaved sedges, and, catching a leaf at a particular angle, make it produce a sound of a like character. I need scarcely say the ' drumming' is never produced except when the bird is on the wing and descending, but the vocal sounds, tinka, tinka, tinka, are often uttered whilst the bird is sitting on the ground or on a post or sod wall. One correspondent states he has never been able to make out whether both cock and hen birds make the ' drumming,' but he fancies it is only the cock bird. I am not aware that any naturalist has stated that the hen bird ' drums' as well as the male, but I think I can settle this point in the affirmative, for one day I visited a very small strip of bog, and almost immediately rose the cock bird, which commenced to 'drum' above and around me in a short time. I flushed the hen off her nest of three eggs, and as she left it she dropped the fourth egg, which broke in its fall, and the bird, continuing its flight, struck itself against some posts and rails, and fell stunned to the ground, but soon recovered and flew away. I marked it, and afterwards went and put it up. All this time the male was ' drumming ' overhead, and no other snipes were in the neighbourhood. The female now joined in the ' drumming' and the two were 'drumming' for some time, and - then they both alighted on the tops of posts, and allowed me to walk quite near them, nodding their heads at me all the while. In this instance, at any rate, I think there can be no doubt whatever that both male and female were ' drumming,' as I walked the small strip of bog out over and over again without flushing another snipe."
The Common Snipe breeds in Kashmir, but the eggs have not been taken by any competent observer, and there' are no eggs of this species in the Hume Collection with the exception of three taken at Yarkand. The late Mr. Brooks, however, satisfied himself that the Common Snipe bred in Kashmir, and we can have no better authority for the statement.
In Europe the Common Snipe begins to nest in the middle of April, but in Kashmir apparently not till May. The nest is a depression in the ground, lined with a little grass, and is usually placed near a swamp amongst rushes or high grass. The eggs are almost always four in number, and placed, like the eggs of all the Waders, with the points towards the centre of the nest. The eggs are sharply pyriform, and are only slightly glossy. The ground-colour varies a good deal: from pale greenish to buff or brownish olive of various shades. The surface-markings are large spots and blotches of dark brown or chocolate-brown, usually more dense at the larger end of the egg than elsewhere, where they are often confluent. The underlying markings are purplish grey. A large number of eggs measure from 1.5 to 1.72 in length, and from 1.05 to 1.2 in breadth.
Several instances are recorded of the breeding of this or the Pin-tail Snipe in the plains or hill-ranges of the Empire, as indicated by the capture, as I understand, of young Snipes recently hatched. I have had no opportunity of examining any of these young birds; nor do the eggs ever appear to have been found.
The general colour of the upper plumage of the Common Snipe is black and buff, evenly distributed, and not in large patches, as in the Wood-Snipe. The forehead and crown of the head are black, sometimes mottled with buff. A broad buff band runs from the bill down the middle of the crown. A black band connects the eye with the bill, and above this there is a buff band. The chin is whitish. The sides of the head are pale buff, mottled with brown. The sides of the neck and the hindneck are buff, streaked with brown. The back is black, the long, lateral, pointed feathers * very broadly margined with buff on the outer web, these margins forming two very conspicuous broad bands down the sides of the back. The scapulars are black, margined and irregularly barred with rufous buff. The lower part of the back is brown, the feathers tipped with white. The rump and the upper tail-coverts are barred with pale chestnut and black. The tail-feathers are black with the terminal portion chestnut mottled with black. Each feather has a pale tip and an irregular black bar in front of it. The outer tail-feathers are more or less white barred with black. The lesser and median upper wing-coverts are brown, tipped and margined with pale buff or dull white. The greater coverts are brown conspicuously tipped with white. The outer web of the first primary is white; the inner web is brown. The other primaries are brown with a very narrow white tip. The outer secondaries are brown with a broad white tip. The inner secondaries are irregularly barred with black and pale chestnut. The foreneck and breast are dull buff, streaked with brown. The sides of the body are barred with brown. The abdomen and the thighs are pure white; the under tail-coverts are buff, irregularly marked with black. The axillaries are white, rather obliquely barred with black; and the under wing-coverts are white irregularly banded with black, except on the central portion, which is plain white.
In this species the, sexes do not vary much in size. Length up to 12 1/2; wing about 5 1/4; tail 2 1/4; bill about 2|. * The bill' is greenish brown for two-thirds of its length from the base, then horny, brown; the irides are brown; the legs" and feet are brownish green. Weight up to rather more than 4 1/4 oz. The tail-feathers are fourteen in number (occasionally sixteen), and all of them are of the ordinary kind, soft and broad, the laterals not narrowed nor stiff.
Allied to the Common Snipe is the Great, or Double, Snipe (Gallinago major), which is not unlikely to be found to occur within our limits as a chance visitor. In this species, the three outer feathers of the tail, on either side, are narrower than the others, being about three-tenths of an inch in width. They are pure white, with just one or two small black bars at the base of the outer web. The larger upper wing-coverts are tipped with white. This Snipe is rather larger than the Common Snipe. These characters should suffice for the separation of this species from all other Indian Snipes.
Many writers state that the two broad buff bands on the back of a Snipe, so characteristic of these birds, are formed by the margins of the outer scapulars. This is quite incorrect. The bands are formed by the margins of certain long, pointed feathers, which spring from either side of the upper back. The outer scapulars are margined with buff in a much smaller degree.