The Mysterious Island, Jules Verne, 1874

Once an important game bird for sport and table, today the snipe is for many Americans a bird invented for children’s pranks (I believe this is not so in most other parts of the world).  So when I encounter references where the bird appears with no background explanation in popular period fiction, it still fascinates me that the snipe could have morphed in a mere couple of generations into mythological creature.

Reading “The Mysterious Island” by Jules Verne this spring, I found myself actually surprised when I read the word “snipe”.  This work is quite amazing in the detail which Verne describes the geology, flora and fauna of the island where five men find themselves castaway.  Making a complete scan of the books reveals eight distinct references to snipe as game bird bound for their table, of which I include a few for consideration here.

“Above the aquatic plants, on the surface of the stagnant water, fluttered numbers of birds. Wild duck, teal, snipe lived there in flocks, and those fearless birds allowed themselves to be easily approached.” (page 284)

“On the 3rd of August an excursion which had been talked of for several days was made into the southeastern part of the island, towards Tadorn Marsh. The hunters were tempted by the aquatic game which took up their winter quarters there. Wild duck, snipe, teal and grebe abounded there, and it was agreed that a day should be devoted to an expedition against these birds.” (page 464)

Mysterious Island 2

“As it was easy to land, the usual hunters of the colony, that is to say, Herbert and Gideon Spilett, went for a ramble of two hours or so, and returned with several strings of wild duck and snipe. Top [their dog] had done wonders, and not a bird had been lost, thanks to his zeal and cleverness.” (page 596)

While obviously not the focus of the book, Jules Verne’s inclusion of snipe in his detailed description of the Mysterious Island’s fauna is a bonus for the snipe enthusiast, and is certainly well-qualified adventure reading to pass the time until our own next adventures.


The Common Birds of India, by Edward Hamilton Aitkin

I recently stumbled across this rather curious volume, which appears to have been assembled into its 3rd edition in 1915, with antecedents in a series of articles published approximately 40 years earlier in “The Times of India”.  This volume includes a wonderful but brief editors’ preface by Salim Ali, in which he states

“Editor I hardly like to call myself. Any attempt to ‘edit’ a masterpiece like The Common Birds Of Bombay (now republished as The Common Birds of India) would be tantamount to vandalism.”

Serious praise there.

The book is really is a study in Indian ornithology, centered primarily around Bombay.  But the scholarly writing of the time is captivating, as seen in this selection from the chapter “The Snipes and Snippets”:

“The monsoon has scarcely ended when the saltpans and still flooded rice fields on the other side of the harbor are alive with long-legged waders and web-footed swimmers of many sizes shapes. Snipe and Curlew, Stint and Sand Piper, Heron and Cormorant, Duck and Teal, seem to have arrived by one train, and having no home to go to, are wandering about in search of refreshments. Strange birds are in that crowd sometimes. Not far from Hog Island I have seen a Flamingo in the same field, I think in which I shot a Merganser another year. Are all these to be reckoned as birds of Bombay? Five or ten miles are nothing to them, and there is not one of which it can safely be said that it will not be found on our island. But to describe half of them would defeat the very purpose of these papers, which is not to perplex, but to help the sedentary Bombayite, who is not a naturalist nor a sportsman, nor a murderer under any name, so that he may recognize the birds that he sees as he takes his morning walk, drives to office, sits in his garden, or enjoys a sail in the harbor.”


Picture inset “Painted Snipe, Game Birds Of India, Burma & Ceylon, Pl.v”