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Migration Mysteries: Differences in Behavior Between Common and Wilson’s Snipes

Common Snipe and Wilson’s Snipe, two avian species often associated with the tranquil beauty of wetlands, share striking similarities and subtle differences that make them subjects of intrigue for birdwatchers and naturalists.

These birds, though geographically distinct in their primary ranges, belong to the same genus and possess unique adaptations that allow them to thrive in muddy, aquatic environments.

Their long, probing bills, cryptic plumage, and intricate behaviors make them fascinating subjects for observation and study.

In this exploration, we delve into the nuanced distinctions that set these species apart, from their wing markings to their nesting habits, offering a comprehensive understanding of these captivating shorebirds.

Common Snipe Vs Wilson's Snipe

Key Differences Between Common Snipe and Wilson’s Snipe

Here’s a table summarizing the some key differences between Common Snipe and Wilson’s Snipe:


  • Common Snipe: Common Snipe primarily inhabit Europe, Asia, and parts of North Africa. Their range spans across a wide geographical area, and they are commonly found in wetland habitats such as marshes, bogs, and the edges of ponds and lakes. This species is known for its ability to adapt to various regions within its range.
  • Wilson’s Snipe: In contrast, Wilson’s Snipe is primarily found in North America, ranging from Alaska and Canada to parts of Central America.
    They have a more focused distribution compared to the Common Snipe and are a characteristic species of North American wetlands, making them a sought-after sight for birdwatchers in this region.

Wing Markings

  • Common Snipe: Common Snipe exhibits distinctive wing markings characterized by a broad white trailing edge on its wings. This feature is a hallmark of this species and aids in its identification. The white edge on Common Snipe’s wings, while noticeable, is not as sharply defined as in some other species.
  • Wilson’s Snipe: Wilson’s Snipe, on the other hand, displays a narrower and more conspicuous white trailing edge on its wings. This characteristic narrow white stripe stands out distinctly against the otherwise mottled plumage, especially when the bird is in flight.
    Birdwatchers often use the width of this wing marking to distinguish Wilson’s Snipe from its Common counterpart.

Tail Feathers

  • Common Snipe: A key distinguishing feature of Common Snipe is its tail feathers. This species typically has 14 tail feathers.
    While this might not be readily observable in the field without close examination, it is a reliable characteristic for differentiating between Common Snipe and Wilson’s Snipe. Counting the tail feathers is a practice used by experienced birders.
  • Wilson’s Snipe: Wilson’s Snipe, in contrast, boasts a distinctive count of 16 tail feathers. This is a diagnostic feature that separates it from the Common Snipe and is considered one of the more reliable methods for identification. The additional tail feathers are an important clue for bird enthusiasts trying to positively identify this species.


  • Common Snipe: Both Common Snipe and Wilson’s Snipe share a mottled brown plumage with longitudinal stripes on their backs. This cryptic coloration provides excellent camouflage in their wetland habitats, making them challenging to spot when at rest on the ground.
    Common Snipe’s plumage features a subtle blend of brown tones, creating a camouflage pattern that helps it blend seamlessly into its surroundings.
  • Wilson’s Snipe: Wilson’s Snipe also boasts a mottled brown plumage with similar longitudinal stripes on its back.
    Like the Common Snipe, its plumage serves as effective camouflage amidst the wetland vegetation. The primary distinction in plumage lies in the width of the white wing markings and the count of tail feathers, as mentioned earlier.

Bill Length

  • Common Snipe: The bill of the Common Snipe is a prominent feature adapted for its feeding behavior. It possesses a long, slender, and slightly curved bill that is perfectly suited for probing into soft mud and soil in search of invertebrates, primarily worms, insects, and small crustaceans.
    This bill is a tool that allows Common Snipe to access food resources hidden beneath the substrate of its wetland habitats.
  • Wilson’s Snipe: Wilson’s Snipe shares a similar bill shape with its Common counterpart. Its bill is also long, slender, and slightly curved, designed for the same probing feeding strategy. The bill structure of both species is so alike that it is challenging to differentiate between them based solely on this characteristic.


  • Common Snipe: Common Snipe exhibits a repertoire of vocalizations, including a variety of calls and displays.
    Their most characteristic call is a distinctive “scaipe” or “scape” sound, which is produced during their aerial display flights. These vocalizations are often used by birders to locate and identify Common Snipes during the breeding season.
  • Wilson’s Snipe: Wilson’s Snipe, too, is known for its vocalizations, which play a crucial role in its courtship and territory defense. Its call is a series of nasal “chip-chip” or “chee-chee” notes that can be heard during its display flights.
    While the vocalizations of the two species are unique, distinguishing them based solely on sound can be challenging, especially for those less familiar with their calls.

Habitat Preference

  • Common Snipe: Common Snipe’s habitat preference is extensive and covers a wide range of wetland environments. They are commonly found in marshes, bogs, the fringes of lakes, ponds, and damp meadows. This adaptability allows them to thrive in various regions within their range, making them a versatile species in terms of habitat.
  • Wilson’s Snipe: Wilson’s Snipe, in contrast, has a strong preference for North American wetlands. They are often associated with freshwater marshes, beaver ponds, and wet grassy areas, especially in the northern parts of their range. While they also utilize wetland habitats, they have a more focused distribution compared to Common Snipe.

Leg Length

  • Common Snipe: Both Common Snipe and Wilson’s Snipe share similar leg length proportions. Their legs are relatively long compared to their body size, which aids in their wading behavior in shallow water and muddy environments. These long legs facilitate their movement through the soft substrate of their habitat while foraging for food.
  • Wilson’s Snipe: Wilson’s Snipe’s leg length is comparable to that of Common Snipe. They share this adaptation for navigating the wetland habitats where they are commonly found. The similarity in leg length between the two species further underscores their close relationship.

Eye Stripe

  • Common Snipe: Common Snipe often exhibits a subtle, indistinct eye stripe. This feature, while present, is not always as conspicuous as in some other bird species. The eye stripe may blend into the bird’s mottled plumage, making it less noticeable in certain individuals.
  • Wilson’s Snipe: Wilson’s Snipe typically has a more prominent and well-defined eye stripe compared to the Common Snipe. This eye stripe extends from the base of the bill, through the eye, and towards the back of the head.
    The contrast between the eye stripe and the surrounding plumage makes it a relatively reliable field mark for identifying Wilson’s Snipe.

Head Pattern

  • Common Snipe: The head pattern of the Common Snipe typically includes a subtle stripe or streak that runs through the eye, continuing down the sides of the face. This feature, although not always highly conspicuous, can be observed in many individuals and contributes to the bird’s overall cryptic appearance.
  • Wilson’s Snipe: Wilson’s Snipe often displays a more distinct and pronounced head pattern. It features a well-defined eye stripe that extends from the base of the bill through the eye and back toward the nape of the neck.
    This eye stripe is more noticeable and conspicuous compared to the Common Snipe, making it a useful field mark for identification.

Breeding Range

  • Common Snipe: Common Snipe boasts a widespread breeding range that encompasses Europe, Asia, and parts of North Africa. Their adaptability to various wetland habitats allows them to breed across a broad geographical area within their range.
  • Wilson’s Snipe: In contrast, Wilson’s Snipe primarily breeds in North America, ranging from Alaska and Canada to parts of Central America. This species has a more focused breeding range compared to the Common Snipe and is a characteristic breeder in North American wetlands.


  • Common Snipe: Common Snipe displays variable migration patterns. While some populations are sedentary, remaining in their breeding areas year-round, others undertake migratory movements.
    The migratory populations often travel to milder climates during the winter months, seeking suitable wetland habitats for foraging.
  • Wilson’s Snipe: Wilson’s Snipe is also subject to migratory movements. Populations from the northern parts of their range, such as Alaska and Canada, are known to migrate southward to warmer regions during the winter.
    However, their migration is more consistent and well-documented in comparison to Common Snipe, primarily due to their North American focus.

Migratory Behavior

  • Common Snipe: Common Snipe that engage in migratory behavior often undertake nocturnal flights. They are known to fly at night, utilizing the cover of darkness to avoid predation and take advantage of favorable wind conditions. Their migrations can be quite secretive and challenging to observe directly.
  • Wilson’s Snipe: Wilson’s Snipe, like the Common Snipe, engage in nocturnal migrations. They also prefer to migrate under the cover of darkness, making them less visible during their journeys.
    However, because their migrations are more consistently observed in North America, they are better documented and monitored by birdwatchers and researchers.

Migration Altitude

  • Common Snipe: Common Snipe, during migration, generally fly at low altitudes. Their nocturnal flights often keep them close to the ground, allowing them to navigate familiar landscapes and wetland habitats.
  • Wilson’s Snipe: Wilson’s Snipe, too, prefer low-altitude flights during migration. Their nocturnal behavior keeps them relatively close to the terrain, as they move between their breeding and wintering grounds. This low-flying behavior is a shared characteristic with the Common Snipe.

Nesting Habits

  • Common Snipe: Common Snipe is known for its ground-nesting habits. They construct their nests directly on the ground, often concealed in dense vegetation or tall grasses near wetland areas. These nests are typically well-hidden to protect the eggs and chicks from potential predators.
  • Wilson’s Snipe: Similar to Common Snipe, Wilson’s Snipe also follows ground-nesting habits. They build their nests on the ground, often in concealed locations within their preferred wetland habitats. The choice of nesting sites helps provide some level of protection for their eggs and young.

Egg Color

  • Common Snipe: Common Snipe typically lay eggs with olive to brown coloring. These colors blend well with the surrounding vegetation and offer camouflage, reducing the likelihood of detection by predators.
  • Wilson’s Snipe: Wilson’s Snipe also lays eggs with olive to brown coloring, similar to those of the Common Snipe. The egg coloration is adapted to match their ground-nesting habitat and provide concealment.

Nest Location

  • Common Snipe: Common Snipe nests are strategically located on the ground, often concealed in tall grasses or dense vegetation near wetlands. These locations offer protection and camouflage for both the nest and the incubating parent.
  • Wilson’s Snipe: The nest location of Wilson’s Snipe closely resembles that of the Common Snipe. They choose concealed spots on the ground within their wetland habitats, utilizing natural cover to safeguard their nests.

Incubation Period

  • Common Snipe: The incubation period for Common Snipe eggs typically lasts about 18 to 21 days. During this time, one of the parents incubates the eggs, maintaining the proper temperature and humidity levels necessary for hatching.
  • Wilson’s Snipe: Wilson’s Snipe also has a comparable incubation period, lasting around 18 to 21 days. One of the adult birds takes on the responsibility of incubating the eggs, ensuring their safety until they hatch.

Chick Appearance

  • Common Snipe: Common Snipe chicks are born with cryptic plumage that closely resembles the colors and patterns of their nesting habitat. They have downy feathers that help provide insulation and camouflage. These chicks are precocial, meaning they are relatively mobile and able to feed themselves shortly after hatching.
  • Wilson’s Snipe: Wilson’s Snipe chicks share similar characteristics with Common Snipe chicks. They are born with downy feathers that provide insulation and help them blend into their wetland surroundings. Like Common Snipe chicks, they are precocial and capable of moving and foraging independently after hatching.


  • Common Snipe: Common Snipe primarily feed on a diet of insects and invertebrates. Their long, slender bills are adapted for probing into soft mud and soil to extract prey such as earthworms, insect larvae, and small crustaceans. They rely on their acute sense of touch to detect and capture hidden prey beneath the substrate.
  • Wilson’s Snipe: Wilson’s Snipe shares a similar diet with Common Snipe. They are also insectivorous, feeding on a variety of invertebrates found in wetland habitats. Their long, probing bills are well-suited for capturing earthworms, insects, and other small aquatic organisms from muddy substrates.

Bill Shape

  • Common Snipe: Common Snipe possesses a long, straight, and slender bill. This bill shape allows them to reach deep into the mud and soil to capture their prey. The tip of the bill is highly sensitive and can detect the movements of hidden invertebrates.
  • Wilson’s Snipe: Like the Common Snipe, Wilson’s Snipe also has a long, straight, and slender bill. Their bills are specialized for probing and foraging in the same manner as Common Snipe, allowing them to extract prey from the muddy environments they frequent.

Foraging Technique

  • Common Snipe: Common Snipe employs a distinctive foraging technique known as “winnowing.” During this behavior, they fly in an erratic pattern, producing a distinctive sound caused by the air rushing through their specialized tail feathers. This winnowing display is believed to help flush prey from the ground, making it easier to capture.
  • Wilson’s Snipe: Wilson’s Snipe shares the “winnowing” foraging technique with Common Snipe. They also engage in erratic flight patterns, creating the same distinctive sound. This behavior serves a similar purpose for both species, assisting in locating and capturing prey.

Social Behavior

  • Common Snipe: Common Snipe typically exhibit solitary or pair-based social behavior, especially during the breeding season. They are often encountered alone or in small family groups when caring for their young. Outside of the breeding season, they may congregate in larger numbers in suitable wetland habitats.
  • Wilson’s Snipe: Wilson’s Snipe also tend to display solitary or pair-based social behavior during the breeding season. They are often found foraging alone or with their mate. Like Common Snipe, they may form larger aggregations in appropriate wetland environments during migration and outside of the breeding season.

Conservation Status

  • Common Snipe: The conservation status of Common Snipe is generally categorized as “Least Concern” by conservation organizations. This designation suggests that the species is not currently facing significant threats or population declines. However, wetland habitat loss and degradation can impact their populations locally.
  • Wilson’s Snipe: Wilson’s Snipe also holds a “Least Concern” conservation status. Like the Common Snipe, they are not considered globally threatened. However, localized habitat destruction and wetland degradation can affect their populations in specific regions.

Common Snipe Vs Wilson’s Snipe: Comparison Table

CharacteristicCommon SnipeWilson’s Snipe
RangeEurope, Asia, North AfricaNorth America
Wing MarkingsBroad white trailing edgeNarrow white trailing edge
Tail FeathersTypically 14 tail feathersTypically 16 tail feathers
PlumageMottled brown with stripesMottled brown with stripes
Bill LengthLong, adapted for probingLong, adapted for probing
VocalizationsSlightly differentSlightly different
Habitat PreferenceWetlands, marshes, bogsWetlands, marshes, bogs
Leg LengthSimilarSimilar
Eye StripePresent, not always clearPresent, often clearer
Head PatternStripe through the eyeStripe through the eye
Breeding RangeWidespreadPrimarily North America
MigrationMigratory in some regionsMigratory in some regions
Migratory BehaviorNocturnalNocturnal
Migration AltitudeLow-flyingLow-flying
Nesting HabitsGround nestsGround nests
Egg ColorOlive to brownOlive to brown
Nest LocationHidden in vegetationHidden in vegetation
Incubation PeriodAbout 18-21 daysAbout 18-21 days
Chick AppearanceCryptic plumageCryptic plumage
DietInsects and invertebratesInsects and invertebrates
Bill ShapeLong, straight, and slenderLong, straight, and slender
Foraging TechniqueProbing in mud and soilProbing in mud and soil
Social BehaviorSolitary or in pairsSolitary or in pairs
Conservation StatusLeast ConcernLeast Concern

Frequently Asked Questions

Do Common Snipe and Wilson’s Snipe have any distinctive courtship rituals or displays during the breeding season?

Yes, both species engage in aerial displays during the breeding season. These displays involve acrobatic flights with distinctive sounds, which are part of their courtship behavior.

Are Common Snipe and Wilson’s Snipe commonly kept as pets or in captivity?

No, these birds are typically not kept as pets due to their specialized habitat and dietary requirements. They are wild species that thrive in natural wetland environments.

Can Common Snipe and Wilson’s Snipe be found in urban or suburban areas?

While they prefer wetland habitats, they may occasionally be spotted in urban or suburban areas if suitable wetland habitats are nearby. However, they are not typically associated with urban environments.

How do Common Snipe and Wilson’s Snipe avoid predators when nesting on the ground?

Both species rely on their cryptic plumage and concealed nest locations to minimize the risk of detection by predators. Additionally, they may engage in distraction displays to divert attention away from the nest.

Are there any specific conservation efforts in place to protect the habitats of Common Snipe and Wilson’s Snipe?

Conservation organizations often work to protect and restore wetland habitats, which benefit both species. These efforts help ensure the availability of suitable nesting and foraging grounds for these birds.

To Recap

In the intricate world of avian biodiversity, Common Snipe and Wilson’s Snipe stand as remarkable examples of nature’s adaptability and diversity.

Through our exploration, we’ve uncovered the subtle contrasts that differentiate these two closely related species, from wing markings to nesting habits.

Yet, we’ve also celebrated the shared characteristics that connect them—long, probing bills, cryptic plumage, and their role as denizens of vibrant wetland ecosystems.

As we conclude this journey, we are reminded of the delicate balance of life in these vital habitats, where both snipe species play essential roles. Their presence is a testament to the rich tapestry of life in our world’s wetlands, deserving of our admiration and protection.

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