Tell-tale Godwit, or Snipe
It is my opinion that they who have given so much importance to the cry of this bird, as to believe it to be mainly instrumental in ensuring the safety of other species, and in particular of Ducks, have called in the aid of their imagination to increase the interest of what requires no such illustration. A person unacquainted with this Godwit would believe, on reading its history as recorded in books, that the safety of these birds depends on the friendly warning of their long-billed and long-tongued neighbour. And yet it is at no season more noisy or more vigilant than the Kildeer Plover, nor ever half so much so as the Semipalmated species, the reiterated vociferations of which are so annoying. It is true that the Tell-tale is quite loquacious enough; nay, you, reader, and I, may admit that it is a cunning and watchful bird, ever willing to admonish you or me, or any other person whom it may observe advancing towards it with no good intent, that it has all along watched us. But then, when one has observed the habits of this bird for a considerable time, in different situations, and when no other feathered creatures are in sight, he will be convinced that the Tell-tale merely intends by its cries to preserve itself, and not generously to warn others of their danger. So yon may safely banish from your mind the apprehension, which the reading of books may have caused, that duck-shooting in the marshes of our Middle Districts, is as hopeless a pursuit as "a wild goose chase."
The Tell-tale Godwit has a great range in the United States, where, indeed, I have found it in almost every district, and at all seasons. It spends the winter along the shores of our estuaries, rivers, and ponds, and in the rice-fields, from Maryland to Mexico. It is abundant then in South Carolina, the Floridas, and along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, as far as Texas, where I found it in considerable numbers and paired, in the months of April and May, along with the Yellow-shank Snipe, Tetanus flavipes. It is also met with in spring and autumn over the whole interior of the country, and I have found it quite abundant at those seasons along the entire length of the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri rivers, as well as on the Arkansas. They congregate in great numbers in the inland marshes of Florida, and along its rivers, during the winter. I found them near Eastport, in the State of Maine, on the 11th of May, 1833; and on the coast of Labrador, on the 18th of June of the same year. In Newfoundland, on the 11th of August, the young were equal in size to their parents, and being extremely fat, tender, and juicy, afforded excellent eating. In general, however, these birds are thin and have a fishy taste.
In the State of Maine and the province of New Brunswick, the Tell-tale is known by the name of "Humility," which, however, is an appellation that ill accords with its vociferous habits. The Creoles of New Orleans call it "Clou-clou;" and were these syllables rapidly enunciated from two to five times in succession, the sounds would have some resemblance to the usual notes of the species.
When these Godwits arrive in the vicinity of New Orleans about the middle of March, they appear in considerable flocks. They retire, however, in the beginning of May, and return about the first of July, from which time they continue there until the end of autumn, some indeed remaining all winter. It seems, that at the period of their disappearance at New Orleans, they retire to the vast marshes near the sea-shore, and there breed, for I have found them abundant near the passes or mouths of the Mississippi in pairs, on the first of April, when the air is warmer than in the interior. They are said to breed in the marshes along the coast of New Jersey, where, according to Wilson, they arrive early in April, and continue until November. It is a curious fact that the Tell-tale Godwit, as well as some other birds of similar habits, is of very rare occurrence along the shores of Massachusetts and Maine. This, however, seems to be accounted for by the absence there of the large spongy marshes, to which these birds are fond of resorting.
Although found in the vicinity of both salt and fresh water, at all seasons, it usually prefers the latter, and the spots which appear to be best adapted to its nature are ponds of which the water is shallow and the shores muddy, so that they can walk and wade at ease upon them. Wherever such ponds occur, whether in plantations or in the interior of forests, or on extensive savannahs or prairies, there you will find them actively employed, wading so far into the water as to seem as if they were swimming. If just alighted after ever so short a flight, they hold their wings upright for a considerable time, as if doubtful of not having obtained good footing. Closing their wings, they then move nimbly about the pool, and are seen catching small fishes, insects, worms, or snails, which they do with rapidity and a considerable degree of grace, for their steps are light, and the balancing or vibratory motion of their body, while their head is gently moved backwards and forwards, is very pleasing to the eye.
I have often observed these birds on large logs floating on the Mississippi, and moving gently with the current, and this sometimes in company with the Snowy Heron, Ardea candidissima, or the American Crow, Corvus Americanus. In such situations, they procure shrimps and the fry of fishes. In autumn, they are extremely prone to betake themselves to the margins of our most sequestered lakes in the interior of Louisiana and Kentucky, where the summer heat has left exposed great flats of soft sandy mud abounding with food suited to their appetite, and where they are much less likely to be disturbed than when on the marshes on the sea-shore, or on the margins of rivers. When they have been some time in the salt-marshes, and have eaten indiscriminately small shell-fish, worms, and fry, they acquire a disagreeable fishy taste, and being at the same time less fat, are scarcely fit for the table. They are social birds, and frequently mingle with other waders, as well as with the smaller ducks, such as the Blue-winged and Green-winged Teals. In the salt-marshes they associate with Curlews, Willets, and other species, with which they live in peace, and on the watchfulness of which they depend quite as much as on their own.
The flight of the Tell-tale Godwit, or "Great Yellow-Shank," as it is generally named in the Western Country, is swift, at times elevated, and, when necessary, sustained. They pass through the air with their necks and legs stretched to their full length, and roam over the places which they select several times before they alight, emitting their well-known and easily imitated whistling notes, should any suspicious object be in sight, or if they are anxious to receive the answer of some of their own tribe that have already alighted. At such times, any person who can imitate their cries can easily cheek their flight, and in a few moments induce them to pass or to alight within shooting distance. This I have not unfrequently succeeded in doing, when they were, at the commencement of my calls, almost half a mile distant. Nay, I have sometimes seen them so gentle, that on my killing several in a flock, the rest would only remove a few yards.
I have always found that the cries of this bird were louder and more frequent during the period of its breeding, when scarcely any birds were in the vicinity. I therefore conclude that its cries are then more intended to draw you from the spot where its nest is concealed, than for any other purpose, as on such occasions the bird either moves off on foot, or flies away and alights at a short distance from the place where its treasure lies.
When in Labrador, I found these birds breeding, two or three pairs together, in the delightful quiet valleys bounded by rugged hills of considerable height, and watered by limpid brooks. These valleys exhibit, in June and July, the richest verdure, luxuriant grasses of various species growing here and there in separate beds many yards in extent, while the intervening spaces, which are comparatively bare, are of that boggy nature so congenial to the habits of these species. In one of those pleasing retreats my son found a pair of Tell-tales, in the month of June, both of which were procured. The female was found to contain a full-formed egg, and some more of the size of peas. The eggs are four, pyriform, 2 1/4 inches long, 1 (4 1/2)/8 in their greatest breadth, pale greenish-yellow, marked with blotches of umber and pale purplish-grey.
The plumage of this bird has a very different appearance in autumn and winter from that which it presents at the approach of the breeding season. This has led some students of Nature in the United States to suppose that there exist two nearly allied species; but this, I am confident, is not the case. The female is larger than the male, but only in a slight degree.
Dr. RICHARDSON has found this species on the Saskatchewan and Mr. TOWNSEND on the Columbia river.
TELL-TALE GODWIT, or SNIPE, Scolopax vociferus, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. vii.p. 57.
TOTANUS MELANOLEUCUS, Bonap. Syn., p. 324.
TOTANUS VOCIFERUS, Tell-tale, Swains. and Rich. F. Bor. Amer., vol. ii.p. 389.
TELL-TALE or GREATER YELLOWSHANKS, Nutt. Man., vol. ii. p. 148.
TELL-TALE GODWIT, Tetanus melanoleucus, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. iv. p. 68.
Male, 14, 24 3/4. Female, 13 3/4, 25 1/2
Abundant during autumn, winter, and spring, from Texas along the Atlantic, and throughout the interior to Labrador. Few breed in the Jerseys; most from Labrador northward.
Bill much longer than the head, very slender, sub-cylindrical, straight, flexible, compressed at the base, the point rather depressed and obtuse. Upper mandible with the dorsal line straight, the ridge convex, broader at the base beyond the nostrils and blended with the sides, which are convex, the edges thick, with a groove running their whole length, the tip slightly deflected. Lower mandible with the angle very long and narrow, the dorsal line straight, the sides convex, with a slight groove in their basal half, the sides convex, the edges grooved longitudinally, the tip narrow. Nasal groove long and narrow, extending to nearly half the length of the bill; nostrils basal, linear, direct, pervious.
Head of moderate size, oblong, compressed, eyes large. Neck rather long and slender. Body slender. Feet very long and slender; tibia bare for half its length, scutellate before and behind; tarsus compressed, also scutellate before and behind; hind toe very small and elevated; fore toes of moderate length, very slender, connected at the base by webs, of which the outer is larger; second or inner toe considerably shorter than fourth, which is in a similar degree exceeded by the third; all covered with numerous scutella above, flattened beneath, and marginate. Claws small, slightly arched, much compressed, rather obtuse, that of the middle toe much larger, with the inner edge dilated.
Plumage soft and blended, on the fore part of the head very short. Wings long, narrow, pointed; primaries narrow and tapering, first longest, second a little shorter, the rest rapidly graduated; secondaries short, broad, incurved, obliquely rounded, the inner elongated and tapering. Tail short, doubly emarginate in a slight degree, of twelve rounded feathers.
Bill black, tinged with bluish-grey at the base. Iris dark brown. Feet bright yellow, claws brownish-black. Upper part of the head, lores, cheeks, and the neck all round, excepting the throat, streaked with brownish-black, on a white ground, tinged with grey on the head and hind neck; the throat, breast, and abdomen, are pure white; the sides and lower tail-coverts barred with brownish-black, as are the axillar feathers and lower wing-coverts; the lower surface of the primaries light grey, their shafts white. The upper parts generally are black, glossed with green, each feather margined with white triangular spots. The hind part of the rump and the upper tail-coverts white, barred with dusky. The anterior smaller wing-coverts, alula, primary coverts, and primary quills, brownish-black, without spots; shaft of first primary white, of the rest brown. Tail-feathers white, with numerous bands of dark greyish-brown; the middle six feathers more or less of a light brownish-grey toward the end, the bars not extending over their central part, their tips white.
Length to end of tail 14 inches, to end of wings 14, to end of claws 16; extent of wings 24 3/4; bill along the ridge 2 3/12, along the edge of the lower mandible 2 5/12, wing from flexure 8 2/12; tail 3 8/12; bare part of tibia 1 1/2; tarsus 2 5/12; hind toe and claw (4 1/2)/12; middle toe and claw 1 (8 1/2)12. Weight 6 oz.
The female resembles the male.
Length to end of tail 13 3/4, to end of wings 14 1/2, to end of claws 17 3/4; extent of wings 25 1/2. Weight 6 1/2 oz.
Both sexes become darker on the upper parts, at the approach of spring. This dark colour disappears after their autumnal moult.
The tongue is 1 2/12 inches in length, slender, sagittate and papillate at the base, triangular, tapering to a fine point. On the roof of the mouth are two rows of large blunt papillae directed backwards; the edges of the mandibles are thick and grooved; the posterior aperture of the nares linear, 9/12 long. The oesophagus, 6 3/4 inches in length, passes along the right side of the neck, and has a diameter of 3/12 of an inch in its upper part, but is dilated to 5/12 before it enters the thorax. The proventriculus is oblong, 8/12 in length, its glandules oblong. The stomach is oblong, 1 2/12 inches in length, 8/12 in breadth, its lateral muscles of moderate size, the tendons 5/12 in diameter, the cuticular lining hard, with large longitudinal rugae, and of a deep red colour. The intestine 2 feet 8 inches long, varying in diameter from (2 1/2)/12 to 2/12. The rectum 1 9/12 inches long; the coeca 4 5/12 inches long, of an oblong form, with the extremity rounded, their diameter (1 1/2)12.
In another individual, the oesophagus is 6 1/2 inches long; the stomach 1 9/12; the intestine 2 feet 3 inches; the rectum 1 9/12, the coeca 4 1/12, their diameter (1 1/2)12.
The trachea, 4 8/12 inches long, (2 1/2)/12 in diameter above, 2/12 below; of 120 unossified rings; its contractor muscles feeble, the sterno-tracheal moderate; a single pair of inferior laryngeal; the bronchial rings about 15.
For more on this species, see its entry in the Birds of North America Field Guide.