Riddle of the Winnowing Snipe

Although the photo illustration is not the usual full-frame bird close-up, this blog post may be of interest to people from the northern United States, Canada, and Alaska who’ve been seeing – and hearing – a lot of common snipe lately. The picture captures a snipe diving from the cloudy sky near Anchorage, Alaska, this morning to create the “woo-woo-woo-woo-woo” sounds – or winnowing – frequently heard now around Alaska’s lakes, streams, and marshy areas.

As a kid growing up in Alaska I used to assume the birds made the sound through their mouths. But as I grew older and watched more closely, I realized the snipe actually fly up high at a steep angle before pointing downward and diving. As they dive, their wings flap rapidly, pushing air through the stiff outer tail feathers and creating the winnowing sound.

They perform this aerial dance and make that distinctive music each spring as part of their breeding rituals.

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