As a young cub scout going away to camp, my father and grandparents warned me against a prank the older scouts might play on me. “Never go on a snipe hunt,” I was warned. As far as I could gather, it was a fool’s errand of sorts: older boy scouts would suggest to us rookies that we chase the snipe, a bird that was nearly impossible to find, never mind catch. Great glory would go to the boy who caught the elusive snipe, we’d be told. But we should resist this seemingly honorable quest, for the snipe, as the bullies would describe it, could never be captured because it did not exist. The snipe hunt would inevitably end with us WeBeLos lost in some swamp while the smug Tenderfoots raided our candy stash.
I never was sent on a snipe hunt, but the warning left me with the impression that the snipe was, in fact, mythological. (I believed the same about gypsies until a trip to Europe at age 16.) This was no doubt reinforced by my poor recollection of Lewis Carroll’s jabberwockese poem The Hunting of the Snark, a short farce about a beast that is hunted by diverse characters but found by none. At some point, I misremembered The Hunting of the Snark as The Hunting of the Snipe, which seemed like an equally nonsensical title.
But there is a genuine animal behind the never-seen cryptid “snipe,” and it is almost as elusive. Snipes are wading shorebirds, most of which are part of the Scolopacidae family with the woodcocks, which they also resemble in so many ways: the cryptic coloration that gives them excellent camouflage against the rushes and pebbles of their home, the high-set eyes, the long bill for probing for worms and crustaceans below the muck. Snipes are animals that are built to disappear. If camouflage fails, the snipe will escape danger with a flight pattern so erratic and zigzagging that hunters find them almost impossible to take down. Only a supremely skilled sharpshooter would be able to both find and finish a crafty snipe with mere bullets; hence, the origin of the “sniper.”
The term “sniper” began among British troops in the 1770’s to glorify an excellent hunter, but it was not until 1824 that it was used to describe a sharpshooter in battle. (Through the Civil War, snipers in American warfare were simply part of the “skirmishers,” the forces at the edges of the battle which picked small fights and harassed the enemy.) But snipers as we know them were born at the turn of the 20th century during the Second Boer War in South Africa. There, a Scottish Highland unit headed by an English lord and answering to an American scoutmaster developed the skills and tactics that would define for the modern sniper unit: not just marksmanship, but stealth, surveillance, caution, patience, and camouflage. They were the first known military unit to wear a ghillie suit, the costume snipers wear to blend in with the immediate vegetation. In other words, cryptic coloration.
The snipe’s success as a hunter is due largely to the sensitivity of its bill. It bears more nerve-clustered filaments directly below the surface of the bill than any other sandpiper, giving it the ability to tell a buried crab from a buried pebble almost instantaneously. With a rapid sewing-machine action, the snipe probes the sand, finding tiny animals unseen below the surface.
That American scoutmaster that led the first snipers in South Africa was Frederick Russell Burnham, the great adventurer and the inspiration for the fictional Allan Quatermain and, by extension, Indiana Jones. By age 14 he was working as an Indian tracker in the Southwest during the Apache Wars, continued during the Cheyenne Wars, and made his living for his first thirty years as a cowboy, prospector, and buffalo hunter. But by the 1880’s, the consensus in America was that the West had been won, and Burnham was not quite ready to settle down. So he moved to Africa and enlisted with the corporate British forces trying to conquer the region, during which his incredible skills as a tracker earned him a nickname among the Africans: “He-who-sees-in-the-dark.”
There is one time during which the snipe makes itself conspicuous, and that is during mating season. Like its cousin the woodcock, the male snipe performs elaborate mating displays which involve flying up in a circle and taking short, sudden dives, during which it makes a curious drumming sound with its tail. To hear it is at first to disbelieve that this oboe-like winnowing is made mechanically and not with a voice, or that it isn’t the laugh of some half-mad woodpecker, but it really is produced with the specialized outer tail feathers which vibrate as the snipe falls. The drumming of a snipe, which has been compared to the bleating of a goat, is distinctive enough to earn it the name “Flying Goat” or “Heather-bleater” in Scotland, and “taivaanvuohi” or “Sky Goat” in Finland.
The greatest sniper who ever lived, by all accounts, is Simo Häyhä, a Finnish sharpshooter during World War II who was known by the Russians as “White Death.” With over 800 total kills during the war, he boasted 542 kills (505 confirmed, 37 unconfirmed) as a sharpshooter in Finland’s war against the Red Army in a mere 100 days, all of which during the winter of 1939 — the winters in Finland being almost completely dark and with temperatures of -20 to -40 degrees C below 0. An incredibly accurate shot was only one reason he was able to take so many enemy lives; stealth, fortitude and discipline were his main tools. He used iron sights instead of telescopic sights, because telescopic sights require a sniper to raise his head higher, and the glass can reflect light and give away the sniper’s position. He compacted the snow in front of him so that the recoil did not disturb the surface, and kept snow in his mouth so that his breath was not visible as steam. When asked in 1998 how he came to be such a good sniper, he merely answered, “practice.”
The snipe’s cryptic coloration and defensive maneuvers are its main defenses; its body and eggs are spotted to match its pebbled habitat, and its zigzag flight pattern gives any predator a run for its money. Its main tools as a predator of insects: the sensitive beak, and the high-set eyes that look down it like a hunter down a rifle barrel. Subterfuge is its salvation, and precision its means of survival. But only its instincts, living in constant danger on the shoreline and nesting on the ground, keep the species alive. Caught between earth, ocean, and sky, the snipe lives mostly by its wits; ever furtive and alert, it must know its terrain and disappear into it until it seems it was hardly ever there, a passing ghost.
The drumming could be heard everywhere, echoing across the Matobo Hills of Zimbabwe in 1896 as the Matabele prepared to revolt against the British South Africa Company and their mercenaries. Their spiritual leader was Mlimo, an old shaman who led the resistance. Frederick Russell Burnham and another expert scout infiltrated the hills and crawled on their bellies into the sacred cave where Mlimo practiced his rites, waiting for their quarry. Eventually, Mlimo entered and commenced his Dance of Immunity, at which point Burnham assassinated him in the dark with a pistol and fled, torching the village as he ran to distract the hundreds of warriors pursuing him. When he returned, he found his protege, Robert Baden-Powell at another colonial village, waiting to congratulate him. Baden-Powell learned much about the aspects of “woodcraft” — the term at the time for outdoor survival skills and scouting — from Burnham, and would later make them his template for a new organization: the Boy Scouts. Descended from assassins we are, from sharpshooters. From those who move as ghosts and hunt the disappeared. From those who see in the dark, and disappear into the gloam chasing the distant sounds of drums.