Gallinago caelestis ,
The " fantail" snipe, as this species is often called to distinguish it from the next, is the same bird as the common snipe of Europe; I mention this particularly, because I have heard of sportsmen proposing— and I believe the idea was carried out— to send some Indian-shot snipe home in cold storage to see if they really were the same as the British birds.
But to many people who have not done much shooting before they come out, the difficulty will be to distinguish a snipe from the many sandpipers or snippets ; such small waders being abundant in India, and often sold— at any rate they were in the Calcutta Bazaar in my time— for the table as snipe, which argues that a good many people do not know what a snipe ought to be.
The characteristic of the true snipe, fantail or pin-tail, then, is the rich dark, well-mottled plumage, showing brown, black and buff, instead of the more uniform and coldly tinted drabs and whity-browns of the sandpiper tribe. In particular is to be noticed the orange-buff tint at the end of the tail-feathers. The great length of the beak, which is about half as long as the rest of the bird, is also a noticeable point, but as some few sandpipers have very long bills, it may be noticed that in such there is always a small web between the middle and outside toes, which is completely wanting in snipe of all kinds.
There is no difference in colour between male and female snipe, but, on the whole, the hens are bigger than the cocks, the hen's bill sometimes reaching three inches, and her weight five and a half ounces, while a big cock's beak will only be about two inches and three-quarters, and his weight barely over the five ounces ; the average weight of both sexes is given by Hume as 4.2 ounces.
The vast majority of fantail snipe are winter visitants to India; they first come in in any number about the end of August, and September is the usual month for the arrival of these birds, while in Southern India and Burma they are later than this. By the end of March most of them have usually left again, but sometimes many stay on till the middle of April, and even up to June stray birds may occur even in the south of India. The Sub-Himalayan tracts are those which tempt most birds to stay late, being well wooded and well watered.
During their stay fantail snipe are found all over the Empire, though their abundance varies in different localities, generally inversely with that of the pintail; in the southern and eastern provinces of India and in Burma, for instance, this species is the less common of the two, and often quite scarce, while it is the common species of the north-west part of the country. Snipe in distribution and the dates of it are, of course, somewhat affected by weather; heavy rains and prolonged cold weather will keep them longer in the north, delaying their spread to the southern districts, and will likewise delay their final departure in the spring.
Although not actually flocking, as so many waders do, they are sociable to the extent that several may generally be found in one locality, and in the arrival and departure of the general body taking place simultaneously. Their chosen ground, as most people know, is swamp or marsh, wherever mud and low grassy cover is available; paddy-fields naturally appeal to them particularly. They resort to such places for food, which consists mostly, in the case of this species of snipe, of earthworms, although other small forms of animal life are also taken. The food has to be found by feeling, and the way in which a snipe's bill, by its flexibility, will open at the tip, the end only of the upper jaw being raised to nip the worm, is a wonderful adaptation to this mode of feeding, as is also the " overshot " structure, the upper bill ending in a sort of knob, back of which the lower fits at the tip, so as to penetrate with as little resistance as possible. This structure is seen more or less in all true snipe, and is generally a good distinction from the various sandpipers, whose bills are usually less adapted for experimental boring.
When they are not feeding, snipe like to be out of water, so during the heat of the day they are to be found on the nearest dry spot back of the mud on,land, or even on water-weeds well out in a jheel. Being only small birds, also, they have no use for places where the water is more than an inch or so deep— too much water is just as bad as none at all from their point of view. Colonel Tickell sums up the situation by saying: " It is not easy to describe the ground this bird selects. In paddy fields, I found, where the stubble showed the mud freely—that is, was not too thick—and where puddles of water were interspersed, fringed with short, half-dry, curling grass, and small weeds, there the snipe were sure to be if in the country; and note, if these puddles were coated over with a film of iridescent oily matter (the washings of an iron soil) the chances were greatly increased of a find."
The ground on which that celebrated snipe-shot, Mr. W. K. Dods, of Calcutta, made his record bag of 131 couple— 259 of the present species, one pintail, and two jack-snipe—is described as " a large swamp tract of country covered with about the worst kind of ' punk ' it has ever been my fate to shoot in, a black reeking mud composed entirely of decayed and decaying vegetable matter in which one frequently sank to one's thighs ; growing in this ooze were dense clumps of hoogola reeds interspersed with fairly open glades, where birds could feed, and with other patches of thin null jungle in which snipe delight to rest during the day, secure from the too pressing attentions of the numerous hawks that infest these marshes." Snipe also seek cover in order to avoid the hot sun, for they are not birds of the light by choice, and at times even feed by night, besides migrating at that time. Their peculiar alarm-cry on rising variously rendered as " scape," "psip," or " pench "—is well known, as also the zigzagging in flight during the first few yards of their course. This style of flight is due to alarm, for a snipe can fly straight from the start if it wants to, and does so when going off undisturbed. The straight-away flight is swift, but it is generally agreed that snipe afford easier shots in India than in England, though there is some difference of opinion as to the advisability of firing at once when the birds rise, or letting them get their twistings over before "letting drive" at them; both methods have been practised by excellent shots.
Although their usual breeding haunts lie to the north and west of India, common snipe breed regularly in Kashmir, and very occasionally elsewhere with us. Mr. E. C. Stuart Baker took a nest himself and got the old bird as well, in the Santhal Pergunnas, and had another clutch brought him By his native collector. The birds when breeding produce the curious sound known often as "drumming," though it is better described as " bleating." There has been much discussion as to how it is produced, but the method seems to be now fully ascertained; the bird rises to a certain height in the air and swoops downwards, with the tail outspread and its two outer feathers standing away from and in front of the rest. It has been proved experimentally that these two feathers alone, properly manipulated, will produce the "bleat." In the most interesting experiment of all they were fastened to the notch-end of an arrow shot into the air, and the bleat came out as the dropping arrow reached the ground. Both sexes bleat, and they make this noise when alarmed as well as when courting. They also have a double note vocally produced, but not while drumming. Although in the breeding season snipe often perch on posts and trees, the nest is, as one would expect, on the ground, and is a very scanty affair; that Mr. Baker saw was composed of a fine, curly, brown grass. The eggs are peg-top-shaped, of an olive, drab, or brown colour, blotched with dark brown and lavender, and just over an inch long; four is the full set; the chicks run at once, and are mottled with light and dark brown and peppered with silver-white.
Snipe have many local names : Tibud or Pan-Iowa among the Mahrattas; Khada-lcuchi, in Bengal; Kaeswatuwa, in Ceylon ; Mor-ulan in the Tamil and Mukupuredi in the Telugu languages.