Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
THE SEMIPALMATED SNIPE, OR WILLET.
TOTANUS SEMIPALMATUS, Lath.
PLATE CCCXLVII.--MALE AND FEMALE.
Many individuals of this fine species spend the winter in our Southern
States, and the extent of its migration northwards is comparatively limited.
Some are occasionally seen as far eastward as the neighbourhood of Boston, and a
few have been known to breed not far from New Bedford in Massachusetts; but
beyond that state the species may be said to be unknown. Their propensity to
remain at all seasons in the immediate vicinity of the coast is such, that they
are very seldom met with far inland, even along large rivers, on the margins of
which they might find the food they usually prefer. I once shot one in autumn
on the lower part of the Ohio, but it was much emaciated, and I concluded that
its appearance there was merely accidental. From the month of the Mississippi
to New York it is pretty generally found during the breeding season; but all the
individuals betake themselves in winter to the shores of Carolina, Georgia,
Florida, and the countries bordering the Mexican Gulf I have very little doubt
that those seen by Mr. SAY on the banks of the Missouri had accidentally visited
that country, as the favourite haunts of this species at all seasons are the
salt-marshes and sea-shores. It is well ascertained that it occurs on the
western coast, and I have seen many skins of it recently brought from the mouth
of the Columbia river. It is probably from thence that it migrates to the
shores of the Saskatchewan, where it was observed by Dr. RICHARDSON along the
small saline lakes.
In the Middle States, the Semipalmated Snipe is known to every fisherman
gunner by the name of "Willet;" and from the Carolinas southward by that of
"Stone Curlew." In the latter districts, during autumn and winter, it resorts
to the stony shores of estuaries, the banks of racoon oysters, and the extensive
salt marshes so common there along the coast. On the 1st of May, 1832, while
rambling over some large and partially submersed islets of the Floridas called
Duck Keys, scantily covered with bushes and some mangroves, I saw a good number
of these birds in company with the Great Marbled Godwit. The Willets were all
paired and very clamorous, although we found none of their nests. To my great
surprise, I saw them alight on the bushes and trees with as much ease as if they
had been land birds, stand erect, open their wings to the sun, and await our
approach, exhibiting, when thus perched, much less shyness than when on the
ground. Until then I had never observed such a habit in this bird, and indeed
had felt surprised at seeing the Bartramian Sandpiper, Tringa Bartramia, alight
on fences and trees. Nothing of this kind is mentioned by WILSON, who, however,
speaks of both species as if he were well acquainted with their habits. A few
days after my visit to the Duck Keys, some nests containing eggs were found on
other islets not far distant.
Along the shores of the Carolinas, this species begins to lay about the
beginning of April; but in the Middle States, in New Jersey, for example, it
seldom makes its appearance before the 15th of April, and does not begin to
breed until a month later. At the approach of the love season, the Willets shew
a great degree of vivacity, ramble much on wing, and fill the air with their
sharp cries. Once mated, they attend to the security of their eggs and brood
with affectionate care, and are silent until disturbed by the approach of some
of their numerous enemies. The sight of a Crow, a Turkey Buzzard, a quadruped
of any kind, and more especially of a gunner, at once excites the greatest
alarm; and, rising on wing, they fly above and around you at a considerable
distance, vociferating their anger with great vehemence, and continually
endeavouring to allure you away from the spot where their treasure is concealed.
Should they have young broods, they not unfrequently alight within sight, emit
clicking and querulous notes, raise their wings upright, and run over the ground
as if wounded, moving in so pitiable a manner as frequently to excite a good
feeling towards them in the gunner, who, should he be a parent himself, is
almost sure to leave them unmolested. When much pursued, the birds join and
form a flock, the individuals of which continue to wheel through the air, at
some distance from their nests, until their enemy has departed.
The Semipalmated Snipe is at all times a shy and wary bird, so that in
approaching it the sportsman requires to use the greatest caution. The method
which I found most effectual was to employ a well-trained dog, and conceal
myself among the rankest herbage of the marshes. The Willets rarely failed to
fly close over the dog, and as he now and then, playfully, as it were,
approached me, the birds came within shooting distance. On such occasions, if
one is brought down, another may follow, provided the sportsman is quick; but,
after being thus shot at, the Willets generally take a long circuit, and remove
towards some clear spot near the water, where they alight and watch your
motions. The cries of one suffice to alarm all within hearing, and you see all
of them with outstretched legs and necks running away as you approach. Often at
the very instant when you are preparing to shoot, they all rise on wing, fly
across some bay or creek, and betake themselves to the marsh, where they are
safe from your pursuit.
During winter you frequently see these birds in the Southern States along
the naked shores. The moment they see you the cry of alarm is sounded, and the
flock, which now consists of one, two, or perhaps three families, suffer you to
come almost within shot, as if purposely to tantalize you, but at this moment
fly off circuitously over the water, and alight at the distance of some hundred
yards. At such times you may procure them by floating your boat quietly along
the shores; but the experiment rarely succeeds on the same flock more than once.
When they are on large racoon-oyster beds, it is almost impossible to approach
them; and if there should be a few Curlews or Oyster-catchers among them, it
were better for you to go in search of some other game.
The flight of this species is strong, rapid, and greatly protracted. Its
movements on wing greatly resemble those of the Oyster-catcher, and, unless
during the breeding season, are performed low over the waters. They seldom rise
without emitting their usual notes, which resemble the syllables will-willet, or
will, will, willet, and are different from the softer and more prolonged
whistling notes which they emit during the love season. They generally travel
in flocks, even in spring, and congregate for the purpose of breeding, being
attracted when passing by the notes of those which have already arrived at a
chosen spot. The males and females remain together until autumn, when several
families join and live peaceably together. When wounded and brought to the
water, they swim tolerably well, but do not dive, although they now and then, on
being approached, try to submerse themselves.
The Willets retire to the interior of the larger salt-marshes for the
purpose of forming their nests and raising their broods in security. There, in
the vicinity of the shallow pools, which frequently occur in such places, the
bird prepares a nest on the ground, among the rank grass, of which the tenement
itself is composed. It is usually raised to the height of from three to five
inches, and is, I believe, annually augmented or repaired. WILSON says that
this augmentation or raising of the nest is carried on whilst the Willet is
laying and sitting; but this I have never observed. The eggs, usually four in
number, are placed with the broad end outwards, as is the case with those of
most birds of this tribe. They measure two inches and one-eighth in length, by
one inch and a half in breadth, are much flattened at the larger end, and more
or less pointed at the other. The shell is smooth, of a dull yellowish-olive
tint, irregularly spotted and blotched with dark umber. The eggs afford
excellent eating. Both birds incubate, sitting alternately day and night. The
young run about on leaving the shell, and are carefully fed by their parents.
They are of a greyish hue, and covered with down, but soon shew feathers, grow
rapidly, become fat and juicy, and by the time they are able to fly, afford
excellent food. At the first moult they acquire their full plumage.
The food of the Willet consists of aquatic insects, small crabs, and
fiddlers, which they procure either by pursuing them on foot or by probing for
them in their burrows, along the mud-bars, and in the crevices of the creeks and
salt-water ditches. I have also observed it turning over stones and shells to
seek for worms beneath them.
The males are smaller than the females. I have presented you with figures
of the adult both in the winter and summer plumage.
SEMIPALMATED SNIPE, Scolopax semipalmata, Wils. Amer. Orn.,
vol. vii.p. 27.
TOTANUS SEMIPALMATUS, Semipalmated Tatler,
Swains. and Rich. F. Bor. Amer.,vol. ii. p. 388.
SEMIPALMATED SNIPE or WILLET, Nutt. Man., vol. ii. p. 144.
SEMIPALMATED SNIPE or WILLET, Tetanus semipalmatus, Aud. Orn. Biog.,
vol. iii. p. 510; vol. v. p. 585.
Male, 15 1/2, 27 3/4. Female, 15 1/2, 31.
Breeds abundantly in Texas, and along the Atlantic shores to New York,
sparingly as far as Massachusetts. Constant resident in the Southern States.
Rare in the interior.
Adult Male in spring.
Bill long, slender, compressed, tapering, straight or recurved in an almost
imperceptible degree. Upper mandible with the dorsal line straight, the ridge
convex, flattened at the base, the sides grooved to the middle, afterwards
convex, the edges broad and flattened, the breadth of the mandible a little
increased towards the point, which is narrowed, slightly deflected and obtuse.
Nostrils sub-basal, linear, pervious, nearer the edge than the dorsal line.
Lower mandible with the angle very narrow and medial, beyond it the outline
slightly ascending and straight, sides grooved as far as the angle, and convex,
the edges broad and flat, the point narrow and slightly incurved.
Head small, oblong, narrowed before. Neck rather long, slender. Body
slender. Feet long and slender; tibia bare for nearly half its length,
scutellate before and behind; tarsus long, slender, covered before and behind
with numerous scutella, the narrow lateral spaces with extremely small oblong
scales. Toes small, slender, scutellate above, flat beneath, marginate, the
anterior toes connected by basal membranes which extend along their sides, the
outer membrane larger than the inner; first toe extremely small, second and
fourth about equal, third little longer. Claws small, compressed, slightly
arched, obtuse, that of third toe with a dilated inner edge.
Plumage soft and blended, on the fore part of the head very short, on the
neck short and very soft. Wings long, very acute, narrow; primaries tapering
and rounded, the first longest, the second little shorter, the rest rapidly
graduated; secondaries obliquely rounded, the inner elongated and tapering.
Tail short, of twelve narrow, rounded feathers, the two middle ones a little
longer than the rest.
Bill light blue, dusky towards the end. Iris brown. Feet light blue;
claws black. Head and neck brownish-grey, streaked with blackish-brown; the
throat, and a band from the bill over the eye, white. Fore part of back and
scapulars brownish-grey, variegated with central markings and bars of
blackish-brown; the hind part of the back brownish-grey, with a gloss of olive.
Wing-coverts grey, with central lines of brownish-black; primary coverts and
primary quills brownish-black, but the latter white in their basal half; outer
secondaries white, inner like the scapulars. Lower wing-coverts dusky; breast
and sides white, the latter undulatingly barred with brownish-black; abdomen and
lower and upper tail-coverts white, some of them, however, with a few dusky
bars. The four middle tail-feathers are barred with brownish-black and
brownish-grey, the rest pale grey fading to white on the outer, and all more or
less minutely mottled with pale brown.
Length to end of tail 15 1/4 inches, to end of wings 15, to end of claws
17 1/2; extent of wings 27 3/4; wing from flexure 8 1/4; tail 3 2/12; bill along
the back 2 1/4; along the edge of lower mandible 2 4/12; tarsus 2 1/4; middle
toe 1 5/12, its claw 1/4. Weight 7 oz.
Adult Female in winter.
In winter the upper parts are light brownish-grey, the fore part of the
neck and the sides of the same colour but paler; the throat, breast, abdomen,
and rump white; the lower and upper tail-coverts with a few undulated lines of
brownish-grey; the wings as in summer, as is the tail, only that the middle
feathers are grey.
Length 15 1/2 inches; wing from flexure 8 1/2; extent of wings 31; tail
3 1/2; bill along the back 2 7/12, along the edge of lower mandible 2 (6 12)/12;
tarsus 1 7/12; middle toe 1 5/12, its claw 1/4. Weight 10 oz.
FEMALE. Length to end of tail 15 1/2 inches, to end of wings 16, to end of
claws 18 1/4; wing from flexure 9 1/2; tail 3 1/2; bill along the ridge 2 7/12,
along the edge of lower mandible 2 8/12; bare part of tibia 1 5/12; tarsus
2 7/12; first toe 5/12, its claw 1/12; second toe 1 2/12, its claw (1 1/2)/12;
third toe 1 (4 1/ 2)/12, its claw (3 1/2)/12; fourth toe 1 2/12, its claw 2/12;
extent of wings 30 1/4.
Mouth very narrow, its width being only 5 twelfths; the two longitudinal
ridges on the palate remarkably elevated and thin; two series of papillae;
posterior aperture of nares linear; anterior part of upper mandible flat, with a
median prominent line, and thin projecting edges; lower mandible deeply grooved.
Tongue 1 inch 8 twelfths long, trigonal, slender, tapering to a slender horny
channelled point; its base emarginate and papillate. OEsophagus,
Fig. 1 [a b c], 6 3/4
inches in length, 11 twelfths in width; proventriculus, [b c], 10 twelfths
broad. Stomach, [c d e], a very strong gizzard, of a roundish form, 1 1/2 inches
long, and of the same breadth; its lateral muscles very large and distinct, as
are the tendons; epithelium very thick, dense, with two oblong grinding plates,
each having four broad longitudinal rugae, and of a bright red colour.
Intestine, [e f g h i j], 3 feet 3 inches long, only 3 twelfths in width at the
upper part, toward the rectum 2 twelfths. Coeca, [i i], 3 1/4 inches long;
their distance from the extremity 3 inches; their width 2 twelfths, the
Trachea 5 1/4 inches long, from 3 1/2 twelfths to 2 twelfths in breadth,
much flattened; its rings unossified, 125, and 1 dimidiate. Proventricular half
rings 15. Lateral muscles rather strong; a single pair of inferior or laryngeal