Our snipe has returned.
I measure the arrival of spring by a couple of metrics: the first purple crocuses that pop overnight out of south-facing slopes around my prairie home, wheeling waves of northbound sandhill cranes, the rising trend of wild-turkey kill photos on my Instagram feed. And the arrival of my neighborhood snipe.
If you’re not familiar with this small bird, it’s a worm-grubbing, marsh-loving shorebird that is an overlooked wingshooting trophy. It’s migratory, leaving northern wetlands as they ice up and wintering in coastal wetlands.
But snipe return to northern wetlands every spring to breed and brood, and I know spring has arrived when I hear the first whistles of a male snipe outside my bedroom window, which looks out on a cattail slough. The male birds perform a relentless courtship ritual, flying high in the sky and then plummeting downward, the air rushing across their feathers creating a high-pitched rhythm that sounds like the distant pulsing of a two-cycle engine. The sound is called “winnowing,” and the snipe in my neighborhood—I’d like to think it’s the same male who returns year after year, but it’s entirely possible that it’s a different bird—is nothing if not dedicated to finding a mate. He will winnow for hours a day, weeks on end.
To me, that’s the sound of spring.
I mention this because each of us has some barometer of the season. Maybe it’s the honk of mating geese, or a particular flower that blooms early and proud. Maybe it’s the arrival of a red-winged blackbird or the shedding of your dog’s coat.
These are cycles that transcend our own short lives, and I mention them now because as we think about our obligation to mentor our neighbors in the arts and sciences of hunting, we need to enlarge the scope of our work to include all the other signs of the outdoors. Our ancestors understood this, and in generations long before hunting licenses or centerfire rifles, they defined a hunter as someone who learned all they could about the wider wild world, well beyond the animals they could hunt and eat.
The Bible names an early version of this outdoorsman: Nimrod. He is variously described as being “mighty to the Lord and mighty to the earth.” I bet he’d enjoy hearing snipe as much as I do.
I want to tie this to another historical reference: one of the earliest books that tried to describe this well-rounded earth steward: Izaak Walton’s “The Compleat Angler,” one of the first fishing books that described the natural cycle of insects that trout eat, and which savvy fishers might imitate to catch more fish. We honor Walton’s stewardship with an ecologically minded organization called the Izaak Walton League.
But you don’t need to join any group to appreciate these natural rhythms. Just get outdoors, open your ears and your eyes. And take someone along to share all the signs of the season.