Utility Birds

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Published on: Sep. 2, 2007

Last revision: Dec. 3, 2010

retrieve them. Spaniels are ideal woodcock dogs, wiggling into terrifyingly thorny places to root out tight-sitting birds. Getting your dog to work close is the key, because it is easy to miss a flush that occurs more than 30 yards away.


Practical jokes aside, snipe are real game birds. They can be devilishly hard to hit when flying from place to place and are only slightly less challenging when flushed.

Snipe resemble woodcock because of their long bills. However, their plumage has bold stripes, their necks are longer than woodcocks’, and they inhabit open, marshy areas, never forest thickets.

Look for snipe around the margins of shallow ponds, in mud flats of lakes and along muddy stream banks. You also might find them in adjoining disked or plowed crop fields. Late-migrating snipe sometimes take shelter in moist, grassy draws after wetlands freeze over.

When flushed, snipe utter a sharp cry that mimics their name. This is important, as other wading birds often are found in close association with snipe. Hold your fire if you don’t hear the snipe cry and see a long bill.

A stealthy hunter might be able to get quite close to snipe before they take flight. They often return to a location after having been flushed, so you might get a second shot by hunkering down in any available cover and waiting a few minutes.

Although nontoxic shot is not required for snipe, some of the best places to hunt them are public wetland areas where the use of nontoxic shot is mandatory. No. 7 steel shot with a modified or improved cylinder choke is a good choice.


Almost all the rails taken by Missouri hunters are soras, but the two rail species most commonly seen in Missouri are similar enough in appearance that an aggregate bag limit makes sense. Be aware that other rails, including the rare king rail, can be found here during the hunting season.

Soras are small, drab gray birds with yellow beaks much shorter than those of snipe and woodcock. They are secretive, but they betray their presence with frequent ker-wee calls from their hiding places.

You might find several soras around a piece of open water when you first appear, but they quickly disappear into surrounding cattails and sedges. A dog is very helpful for rousting them out of these haunts and for finding them once they are down.

Soras are not fast or erratic fliers, and often they concentrate in large numbers around small marshy areas on state-owned wetlands. These habits make them great confidence-builders for young hunters with limited patience and shooting skill. The fact that these little shorebirds pass through Missouri in September and early October, when temperatures are still pleasant, also favors young hunters. Getting a little wet at this time of year is only an inconvenience, not a reason to stop hunting.

No. 7 steel shot with an improved cylinder choke is a practical combination. Bring along insect repellent and a bottle of drinking water.

Bird Facts

American Woodcock

Scientific name: Scolopax minor
Length: 10-13 inches
Wingspan: 17-19 inches
Season: Oct. 15-Nov. 28
Daily/possession limit: 3/6

Wilson’s Snipe

Scientific name: Gallinago delicata
Length: 11-13 inches
Wingspan: 16-17 inches
Season: Sept. 1-Dec. 16
Daily/possession limit: 8/16


Scientific name: Porzana carolina
Length: 6-7 inches
Wingspan: 12.5 inches
Season: Sept. 1-Nov. 9
Daily/possession limit: 25/25 (in the aggregate with Virginia rails)

Virginia Rail

Scientific name: Rallus limicola
Length: 8-11 inches
Wingspan: 13-15 inches
Season: Sept. 1-Nov. 9
Daily/possession limit: 25/25 (in the aggregate with soras)

Make a meal out of it

You won’t feed a large group with utility birds unless you bag a limit of all three. Some people say these birds are not fit to eat. Others—who either are better cooks or have broader tastes—think they provide excellent table fare.

The easiest way to prepare snipe, rail and woodcock is to pull back the skin covering the breast and carefully fillet the meat from the bone. Snipe and rails yield about an ounce of meat per bird. Woodcock breasts are a little larger.

Soak breast fillets for an hour or so in milk or buttermilk, then rinse them with cool water. Saute the breast halves in butter or olive oil with minced garlic, salt and pepper to taste. Cook only until the meat is still slightly pink at the center. Overcooking makes wild fowl tough and contributes a strong taste.

To make a sauce, remove the meat from the pan and add a tablespoon of red wine for each breast. Cook on low heat until slightly thickened. Garnish with parsley and serve on a bed of wild rice.

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