Snipe are the last vestige of a our shorebird hunting tradition
By JIM MATTHEWS
The small, dark pinfeathers were swirling all over the garage as I plucked the last of the small specks of fluff off a pair of snipe I shot earlier in the day at the San Jacinto Wildlife Area. I like to leave the long, green legs attached to the carcass and sever the heads off right at the base of the skull so the long neck and legs remain on the birds for when I roast them. I don’t want them confused with doves or quail when they are served. However, since my wild-game-loving family isn’t big on snipe, I’m usually the one who eats them sitting alone on the couch with the old Labrador at my feet when my family is off doing more important things.
Eating the snipe will transport me back to a different time. I have a cousin who has researched our family heritage, and we have a branch that extends back deeply through the American experience, predating the Constitution, shoestring cousins who were presidents (Adams and Bushes), and cities named after my Harris ancestors (Harrisburg, PA). I like to image, that at some point in those long ago years, some of the same blood that flows through my veins coursed through another hunter who came off the marches with a nice bag would later sit an enjoy a meal with rich, dark-meated shorebirds on his plate.
Once upon a time, the hunting and eating of shorebirds was commonplace in this country. Until early in the 1900s, the birds were hunted commercially and sold in markets in vast numbers. On the eastern seaboard, a single hunt on a single marsh could serve up over 30,000 birds for gunners who would sell them. The meat was far more prized than ducks or geese. The intense gunning about wiped out some shorebird species, and in 1918, commercial hunting of all birds was ended with the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and just a decade later, all hunting of shorebirds was banned except for snipe and woodcock.
Today, snipe are the last vestige of that marsh-hunting tradition (woodcock are really a forest and bog bird). There are just a handful of hunters left who pursue snipe with anything approaching dedication, but I guess that is become true of all hunting. We keep whittling away at what is still legal to hunt and where we can hunt. Urban sprawl swallows up wild habitats or surrounds them with people who are frightened of guns and hunting.
Of the 35 shorebird species in North America, 23 are facing new environmental pressures and declining, especially on the east coast. But of the other 22 species, only snipe are hunted. No one makes decoys for shorebirds any longer. There are not stories in hunting magazines or hunting blogs about shorebird hunting, and the amount of money available to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other state and federal wildlife agencies for shorebird research and management is a paltry amount.
The reality is that we don’t know much about shorebirds, and while bird watchers are wonderful people who can be good about writing letters, hunters will put their money behind their interests. While a small group when compared to the nation’s population, waterfowl hunter-conservation groups have done more – inadvertently – than other conservation organizations for shorebirds through lobbying and physically protecting wetlands where ducks and geese live.
If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, associated state agencies, and hunter conservation groups have the will-power to battle the anti-hunting crowd, they could launch an effort to allow hunting for some of the other shorebird species and promote a federal shorebird hunting stamp. This is just what we did back in 1932 with the federal duck stamp, perhaps the most successful government program ever enacted. An amazing 98-plus percent of duck stamp monies go back into duck and goose habitat.
For those of us who love snipe hunting and just walking about the margins of marshes, a shorebird stamp is long overdue. So is hunting of other marsh species whose populations are healthy. But more importantly, more funding is needed to isolate the problems with declining populations and initiate conservation measures that would bring them back and increase numbers of all shorebirds. Hunter money is needed.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a “webless” program in place, but it has minimal funding. Only shorebird species that are threatened or endangered are really being studied with money from other accounts, but a robust shorebird fund could boost those efforts for all species of shorebirds.
And the 20,000 or so of us who snipe nationwide each year (and maybe 400 regulars here in California) aren’t going to put much extra money in an account, even with a $10 stamp. So it will require some renewed interest in shorebird hunting by the addition of other species, special permit hunts (like we do with sandhill cranes and swans now), and a promotional program to get hunters back into this traditional hunting activity.
When I tell hunters I like to wander around in marshes looking for snipe, they think it’s a joke. No, we don’t use burlap sacks. No, we don’t go out at night. It is classic bird hunting with targets that flush from low cover, usually within close shotgun range, and then zig-zag away in erratic flight. I miss far more than I do when hunting doves or quail.
I have hooked more than one other bird hunter of these wonderful gamebirds. I’ve taken perhaps a dozen hunters to a few of my spots, and I’ve written about it trying to spread the word. Where I used to hunt in solitude, I now will see an occasional other snipe hunter. Maybe it’s working.
I know my little effort has stimulated at least one hunter’s interest in all shorebird hunting. An avid brant hunter in Mexico, my friend saw that other species of shorebirds could still be hunted in Mexico. He didn’t abandon brant, but his interest in long-billed curlews is now as keen. He says they are more difficult to hunt than the geese. Even with good camouflage and his home-made decoys, the curlews can’t be shot on the same setup twice. But the real icing on his cake is that the curlews are the best-eating wetland bird he’s ever eaten. I understand his perspective.
Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 909-887-3444.