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TALKIN WITH DOKKEN: How do snipe make that creepy sound?

Q. I’ve been hearing a bird this spring, usually near dusk, that makes a kind of creepy, haunting sound. I thought it was a whippoorwill, but when I pointed out the sound last weekend by the campfire, I was corrected and told the bird is actually a Wilson’s snipe. How do the birds produce that sound?

A. I’ve long been fascinated by the sound myself, which is called “winnowing” in bird watching circles.

I contacted Mike Jacobs, recently retired Herald publisher who writes the weekly “Always in Season” column about happenings in the bird world, and he said snipe make the sound as part of a mating ritual that takes place far above the ground. That likely explains why the sound seems to come from everywhere and nowhere at once.

As for how the sound is produced, here is Jacobs’ explanation:

“The sound is produced by air rushing through the bird’s tail feathers as it dives from pretty good height,” Jacobs writes. “Quite remarkable, really.”

As for the whippoorwill, hearing one wouldn’t be out of the question, especially if you live in Minnesota or southern Manitoba, which lie at the western edge of the bird’s range, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” website. As the website’s range map shows, the whippoorwill would be a rarity in North Dakota. The bird gets its name from its call, an equally haunting “whippoorwill, whippoorwill, whippoorwill.”

Wilson’s snipe, by comparison, is common across the northern United States and most of Canada.

To hear the sounds both birds make, I’d suggest checking out the “All About Birds” website at Type in the bird’s name in the upper-right corner search window and scroll down to the “Sound” tab when you reach the page for each of the two species. The site also includes information on identification and life history.

If you have a question for Talkin’ with Dokken, call (701) 780-1148 or send an email to

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is editor of the Herald's Northland Outdoors section and also works as a copy editor and page designer. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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