Common snipes are small, well-camouflaged waders native to the Old World. They have short greenish-grey legs and a very long straight dark bill. Their body is mottled brown in color with straw-yellow stripes on top and pale underneath. The birds have a dark stripe through the eye, with light stripes above and below it. The males and the females are similar in appearance, although the females may have a slightly longer bill.
Common snipes are found throughout the Palearctic. In the north, the distribution limit extends from Iceland over the north of the British Isles and northern Fennoscandia, as well as through European Russia and Siberia. In the east, it extends to the Anadyr, Kamchatka, the Bering Island, and the Kuril Islands, The southern boundary of the distribution area in Europe runs through northern Portugal, central France, northern Italy, Bulgaria, and Ukraine, with populations in the west being only very scattered. In Asia, the distribution extends south to northern Turkestan, locally to Afghanistan and the Middle East, through the Altai and further to Manchuria and Ussuri. Common snipes are mostly migratory, with European birds wintering in southern and western Europe and Africa (south to the Equator), and Asian migrants moving to tropical southern Asia. Preferable habitats include marshes, bogs, tundra, taiga, grassy edges of lakes and rivers, estuaries, ponds, rice fields, and wet meadows.
Common snipes are social birds that usually forage in small groups and may gather in flocks of up to 500 individuals at rich feeding grounds. They feed at dawn and dusk wading in soft mud, probing or picking up food by sight. These are shy birds that conceal themselves close to ground vegetation and flush only when approached closely. When flushed, they utter a sharp note that sounds like scape and fly off in a series of aerial zig-zags to confuse predators.
Common snipes are carnivores. They mainly eat insects, earthworms, small crustaceans, snails, spiders, and also some plant material.
Common snipes are monogamous and form pairs. In order to attract the female, males perform "winnowing" courtship display; they fly high in circles and then take shallow dives to produce a "drumming" sound by vibrating their tail feathers. After the pair was formed, the birds nest in a well-hidden location on the ground, laying 4 eggs of a dark olive color, blotched and spotted with a rich brown. The eggs are incubated by the female for 18-21 days. The freshly hatched chicks are helpless and covered in dark maroon down, variegated with black, white, and buff. They are cared for by both parents and each parent looks after half the brood. The young start to fly when they are between 10 and 20 days old.
Overall, Common snipes are not threatened at present. However, populations on the southern fringes of the breeding range in Europe are declining with local extinction in some areas (notably in parts of England and Germany), mainly due to field drainage and agricultural intensification. Common snipes are also still hunted as a gamebird in much of their range.
According to the IUCN Red List, the global population size of the Common snipe is 15,000,000-29,000,000 mature individuals. The European population includes 2,670,000-5,060,000 pairs, which equates to 5,350,000-10,100,000 mature individuals. Currently, this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List but its numbers today are decreasing.
The scientific name of the Common snipe, 'gallinago' is New Latin for a woodcock or snipe from Latin 'gallina' (a hen) and the suffix '-ago' (resembling).
Old folk names of the Common snipe include "mire snipe", "horse gowk", "heather bleat", and the variant spelling "snite".
The "drumming" sound of feathers that produce male Common snipes during courtship has been compared by others to the bleating of a sheep or goat; hence in many languages, the snipe is known by names signifying “flying goat,” “heaven's ram,” as in Scotland by “heather-bleater” and in Finnish the name taivaanvuohi, "sky goat".
An English zoologist, Philip Manson-Bahr is credited with unraveling the mystery of how the snipe creates that unusual breathy sound which is unlike other birdsong. He worked out that the sound was created by placing out two tail feathers at 90 degrees to the direction of flight. When diving these feathers create this unusual sound.
Common snipes have a flexible tip of the beak; it is full of nerves and helps the birds to feel their prey deep underground.