Wildlife: Are small migratory game birds worth hunting?

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When I started hunting at age 12, my dad made sure I could shoot and handle a gun safely, and he insisted that we eat anything we killed.

"That's the only reason to take a life," he said.

Pop enjoyed hunting pheasants and cottontails, and mom could make a meal from either one. He said smaller species just weren't worth the time or cost of shells.

Wilson's snipe, a shorebird related to woodcock, is one of those smaller species. But unlike timberdoodles, which prefer wet woodlands and bottoms, snipe favor wet meadows and wetter areas on the edges of bogs, swamps and marshes. Few snipe nest in Pennsylvania, so most we see are spring and fall migrants.

At about 3 1/2 ounces, snipe are svelte compared to woodcock, which weigh about 7 ounces. A striped head and back, rusty tail, and cryptic brownish-gray markings make snipe fairly easy to recognize.

Snipe are classified as "webless migratory game birds" in Pennsylvania. The breast muscle makes up about 25 percent of the snipe's entire body weight, so one bird provides barely an ounce of edible meat. My dad would have argued that he had better things to do than hunt snipe.

Most hunters apparently agree. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages migratory game birds, reports that Pennsylvania hunters killed about 400 snipe in 2010. Nationwide, the total harvest was about 100,000. More than 75 percent of the harvest came from the eastern half of the U.S.

Although snipe are small, they are not the state's smallest game birds. That distinction goes to Virginia and sora rails, which average 3 and 2.6 ounces, respectively. There's more meat on crows (16 ounces), which are legal to hunt.

Virginia and sora rail season runs Sept. 2-Nov. 9, with a daily limit of three birds. Snipe and woodcock season opens Oct. 19 and runs through Nov. 30, with daily limits of three woodcock and eight snipe. Hunting migratory game birds requires a regular Pennsylvania hunting license, a Federal Migratory Bird and Conservation Stamp (duck stamp) for persons 16 and older, and a Pennsylvania Migratory Bird License.

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Biologist, author and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 9-11 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 WVLY-AM (Wheeling) and noon-2 p.m. Sundays on 1360 WMNY-AM (Pittsburgh). He can be reached at scottshalaway.googlepages.com and 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.


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