Stephen Colton's Take on Nature: Why Heaney called the snipe the goat of the air

The common snipe, Gallinago gallinago, is a summer visitor to Ireland from western Europe and Africa
Stephen Colton

AS WE arrive at the ancient Festival of Imbolc, that time when our ancestors celebrated the near passing of winter and the beginning of spring around what is now the Feast day of St Brigid, February 1 – Lá Fhéile Bríde – most of us, I suspect, are happy to see the back of January and all its ambiguity.

Named after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, and depicted as having two faces, with the ability to look both back to the old year and forward to the future, the month can offer a mixture of bleakness and hope. The dilemma of which way to look is easier now, as natural processes veer us towards the season of resurgence and new life.

Walking on a road by the edge of my home village last week, I unwittingly flushed out two snipe from the nearby rushy field margin, birds which probably would have been hunted as a valuable food source by those Celtic peoples.

The birds, disturbed by what John Clare describes as, ‘The trembling grass… from the human foot', flew off in typical zig-zig patterns, uttering rasping ‘scratch' calls as they disappeared over the hill.

This diminutive wader is common throughout Ireland in wetland habitats such as damp meadows and lakesides; as Clare again writes in his poem, To the Snipe, the bird is a 'Lover of swamps / The quagmire overgrown', where its long bill probes the muddy ground for earthworms and other invertebrates.

Gallinago gallinago is a summer visitor here from western Europe and Africa with winter populations largely coming from Iceland and the Faroe Islands. A ground nester, it chooses a secluded site, lined with grasses near boggy habitat.

Snipe are difficult birds to see at rest, with their dark brown and black feathers and buff stripes providing effective camouflage. They are often only seen when startled, taking off in a frenzied fashion.

Scottish poet Rabbie Burns, in his song My Hoggie, writes of ‘The blitter frae the boggie', (The snipe from the bog) highlighting one of its many alternative names, the heather/bog/moss bleater or goat bleater. This bleating reference is from the ‘drumming' sound made by the male bird during its aerial courtship display over the nesting site in early summer, a sound I once heard on Fermanagh's Boa Island.

Often likened to the call of a bleating goat, the unusual sound is in fact made by the vibration of the bird's protruding tail feathers in the wind as it drops from the sky.

In Backward Look, Heaney describes the snipe as the, ‘little goat of the air, of the evening… his tail feathers/drumming elegies in the slipstream'.

This likeness to the goat has given the bird various names such as ‘flying goat', and ‘heaven's ram'.

A favourite bird for the roasting pot, snipe are notoriously difficult to shoot because of their speed and erratic flight when driven from cover, hence the term ‘sniper' given to a highly skilled shooter.

Although small birds, snipe are considered tender, delicious eating and traditionally cooked with entrails intact. In The Breakfast Bible (2013), Seb Emina recounts how, on a flight to Washington DC in 1954, the then British prime minister, Winston Churchill famously requested, "a brace of snipe washed down with a pint of port", as a cure for his hangover!

In recent days, close to where the snipe appeared, I was heartened to see that not even the snow could deter two collared doves from rising in prenuptial flight or a magpie from carrying a twig in its beak, signs the seasonal transition to spring is under way.

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