Painted Snipes: Rostratulidae

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PAINTED SNIPES: Rostratulidae



Painted snipes range in size from 7.4 to 10.9 inches (19 to 28 centimeters) in length and from 2.3 to 7 ounces (65 to 200 grams) in weight. They have strong legs and long toes. Painted snipes have bills that curve downward at the tip and spread slightly to take on a spatula-like shape. The South American painted snipe is black-brown on the back and white on the belly. The head and neck are reddish brown in color with a contrasting cream-colored stripe. Males and females are generally similar in appearance, but females are slightly brighter in color and also slightly larger in size. The other species in the family is the greater painted snipe. In greater painted snipes, females have brown heads and necks, bronze-green wings, and black-barred backs. Males are duller in color, with spotted heads and gray-gold backs. Both male and female greater snipes have a striking pale streak around the eye, as well as a pale stripe on top of the head.


Greater painted snipes are found in Africa, south Asia, Southeast Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Australia. The South American painted snipe is found only in South America.


Painted snipes occur primarily in wetland habitats such as marshes. They can also be found in moist grasslands and along streams and rivers with vegetation along the banks. Some populations inhabit human-made environments, including rice fields. Both painted snipe species regularly move short distances to find appropriate wet habitats.


Painted snipes are omnivorous, taking in both plant and animal matter. Animals they eat include invertebrates, animals without a backbone, such as insects, snails, earthworms, and crustaceans. Plant matter includes items such as grass seeds and cultivated grains. Painted snipes forage, or search for food, by standing in mud or shallow water and sifting through water and soil with their spatula-shaped bills. Greater painted snipes forage primarily at dusk and at night.


Painted snipes are usually either solitary and living alone, or are found in pairs. In some instances, however, groups of as many as one hundred individuals have been observed, probably because dry weather reduces the amount of appropriate habitat.

The South American painted snipe is monogamous (muh-NAH-guh-mus), meaning that a single male mates with a single female during the breeding season. Males call to court females. South American painted snipes nest in small colonies, with five or six nests per 2.5 to 3.7 acres (1.0 to 1.5 hectares). The female lays two, or, on rare occasions, three eggs at a time. It is not known how long the eggs take to hatch or whether both parents are involved in taking care of the chicks. It is also not known how soon after hatching chicks leave the nest.


Some ornithologists believe that the greater painted snipe of Australia is a distinct species, a third painted snipe. It has longer wings, a shorter bill, and shorter legs than greater painted snipes found elsewhere in the world. Coloration in Australian populations is also different, since the males' gray tail is paler and females have a chocolate-brown rather than reddish brown head, as well as round tail spots. Finally, the calls of Australian painted snipes sound different from the low booming call of other greater painted snipes.

In the greater painted snipe, the more brightly colored females court the males. Courtship involves calling at dusk with what is described as a series of hiccup-like hoots made either from the ground or while in flight. Greater painted snipes are usually polyandrous (pah-lee-AN-drus), with a single female mating with multiple males, often as many as four. Sometimes, however, they are monogamous, with a female mating with only one male. Males are responsible for building the nests, incubating, or sitting on the eggs, and feeding and protecting the young once they hatch. The female generally lays between two and five eggs at a time. Greater painted snipe chicks are precocial (pree-KOH-shul), hatching at an advanced stage of development, covered with feathers and being able to move. Male greater painted snipe males breed at one year of age, and females breed at age two.

Both painted snipe species build nests that are shallow bowls of reeds and grass. Painted snipes usually choose nest sites that are hidden in dense vegetation, although sometimes they will use more open areas.


Both painted snipe species have long been hunted for food and sport. Greater painted snipes fly slowly, however, and are often considered too easy a target.


Neither species of painted snipe is considered threatened at present. However, the Australian form of the greater painted snipe should, in the opinion of some biologists, be considered a separate species. If it were recognized as a separate species, it would most likely be designated either Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction, dying out, or Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction, by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). Australian greater painted snipes have declined due to the loss of wetland and grassland habitats, as well as long periods of drought.


Physical characteristics: The greater painted snipe measures 9 to 10.9 inches (23 to 28 centimeters) in length and 3.2 to 6.7 ounces (90 to 190 grams) in weight. The female greater painted snipe has a reddish brown head and neck with a bronze-green back and wings. The male has a gray head and back spotted with gold. Both males and females have white eye patches and a white stripe on the top of the head. Young greater painted snipes resemble adult males.

Geographic range: The greater painted snipe is found in Madagascar, sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia, Southeast Asia, Japan, southeast Russia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Australia. The Australian populations are distinct from other greater painted snipes and may be a separate species.

Habitat: Greater painted snipes occupy wetland habitats. They sometimes inhabit human-made areas such as rice fields.

Diet: Greater painted snipes are omnivorous, eating both plant and animal matter. Their diet includes small invertebrates, including insects, worms, and crustaceans, as well as seeds and grains.

Behavior and reproduction: Greater painted snipes are usually found either alone or in small groups. They forage, or search for food, around dusk as well as at night.

Greater painted snipes are either polyandrous, with each female mating with multiple males, or monogamous, with each female mating with only one male. The greater painted snipe may breed at any time during the year, but most frequently breeds after rainfalls. Females usually lay four eggs at a time in a shallow grass bowl-shaped nest. Nests are usually hidden in moist vegetation. Males are responsible for incubating, or sitting on, the eggs. Chicks hatch after fifteen to twenty-one days. Greater painted snipe chicks are precocial, and are usually able to leave the nest fairly quickly after hatching. Chicks are cared for exclusively by the male.

Greater painted snipes and people: Greater painted snipes have long been hunted for sport.

Conservation status: The greater painted snipe is not considered threatened at the present time. However, some populations have declined due to the large-scale loss of wetland habitats. The Australian greater painted snipes may represent a distinct species, and if so, would likely be considered either Vulnerable or Endangered. ∎



del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott, and J. Sargatal, eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 3, Hoatzin to Auks. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions, 1996.

Perrins, Christopher, ed. Firefly Encyclopedia of Birds. Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books, 2003.

Web sites:

"Painted Snipes." Bird Families of the World, Cornell University. (accessed on April 20, 2004).

"Rostratulidae (Painted-Snipes)." The Internet Bird Collection. (accessed on April 20, 2004).