PAINTED-SNIPES Rostratulidae
The Painted-Snipes are a very small family of shorebirds that only superficial resemble typical snipes. They may be more related to jaÁanas. The family is composed of just two species: the Greater Painted-Snipe and the South American Painted-Snipe. The Greater Painted-Snipe (left in my photo from Tanzania) has a wide range over the warmer parts of the Old World, including sub-Saharan Africa, much of tropical Asia, and eastern Australia. It is strongly sexually dimorphic with the brighter colored birds being females, and the cryptically colored birds with the big buffy wing spots being males (this bird, left, may be an imm. female). This flip-flop of the usual pattern in sexually dimorphic species is consistent with the birds' life history. It is the female that does the courting, and it is the male that incubates the eggs and rears the young. In this aspect the Greater Painted-Snipe recalls the "role reversals" found in phalaropes, Plains-Wanderer, and some buttonquail.
The South American Painted-Snipe (right in a great photo by John & Karen Shrader) ranges throughout the southern third of South America. It is not sexually dimorphic and apparently does not have a "role-reversal" breeding strategy, although much is still to be learned about this enigma. The photograph is a bird (probably a male) near a nest (the eggs are shown below). Some books place the two species in the same genus, but Kirwan (1996) gives some good reasons why the two species should each be assigned to unique monotypic genera. Among other things, the two birds differ in that the South American species has webbed toes and that the female in the Old World bird has a unique crop that is not used for digestion but has a role in courtship (it acts as a resonance chamber during the species' prolonged vocal displays). The South American bird also has a more decurved bill over the distal half, as is apparent in this photo.
Both painted-snipe, however, use similar habitats: marsh edges of ponds and slow-moving rivers, wet grasslands, rice paddies, and swampy open country. The few Greater Painted-Snipe that I have seen in Indonesia were in very muddy agricultural land. Both species are omnivorous on invertebrates and their larvae, including insects, snails, crustaceans, and earthworms. They both are weak flyers on rounded wings rather than explosive and swift flying waders as are typical Gallinago snipes.
Although largely solitary, both species of painted-snipe breed semi-colonially. The Greater Painted-Snipe has a polyandrous lifestyle. Photo by Ed Harper (right) shows both a male (with heavy wing spots in the background) and a female (foreground with a rusty chest, and also the photo below) The female courts a male and lays eggs which he will incubate. She then abandons him to go court other males. Due to these habits, nests are often close together although the male will defend a small territory from other males. Although the female takes a passive role in chick-care, she may hang around the territory and help defend it. 
This brief summary of breeding biology is from Kirwan (1996) who indicates that there is much that is not known about the basic biology of painted-snipes. In parts of southern Africa, for example, a monogamous system has been observed in Greater Painted-Snipe in which the female does help in nest building and raising the young.

The exact relationships of Painted-Snipe are not known. Sibley & Monroe (1990) placed them near the jaÁanas and sheathbills, but other evidence indicates a closer relationship with the typical sandpipers (Scolopacidae). Like typical snipes, the painted-snipes are skulking and retiring, and therefore often hard to see. Both species are generally considered uncommon where they occur. There may be substantial population changes within a natural cycle of drought in places (Africa, Australia).

Photos: The Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis (top photo) was on the Tarangire River, Tarangire National Park, Tanzania, in August 2002. W. Ed Harper took the other photos of this species (bottom two shots) in Ngorongoro Crater, n. Tanzania, in August 1989. The male South American Painted-snipe Nycticryphes semicollaris (and the nest) was taken 7 Nov 2002 at El Palenque, a finca some 8 km west of Gral. Lavalle (near San Clemente del Tuyu) in Buenos Aires province, Argentina, by John & Karen Shrader. Photos © 2003 Don Roberson, W. Ed Harper, and John & Karen Shrader, respectively, all rights reserved; used with permission.


Bibliographic note

Family book: rating IIII [out of 5 possible]
Hayman, Peter, John Marchant & Tony Prater. 1986. Shorebirds: An Identification Guide to the Waders  of the World. Croom Helm, London.

This book covers all the Charadriformes -- not just the painted-snipes -- and so includes shorebirds (waders), stilts, avocets, jaÁanas, thick-knees, plovers, and oystercatchers. It is not a "family book" per se, since its focus is on identification problems, but it does include sections on "habits" and migratory or seasonal "movements." Breeding biology and similar topics are not covered here. However, the quality of the identification text more than makes up for this "defect", and adding broader topics would have made for a very fat book. John Marchant gets special credit for the text -- an upgrade from his 1977 guide (with Prater & Vuorinen) -- which surveys the literature well and is based on much original research. The book does rely on Hayman's paintings for illustrations and while they are generally good, I think that photos are a necessary requirement when dealing with the subtleties of shorebird identification. So use this book as an introduction to these families -- and the identification problems that exist -- but rely on other texts for state-of-the-art details.
Because Hayman et al. (1986) is really aimed at field identification issues, one should supplement it with the fine introduction to this family in Kirwan (1996), which also has a nice set of photographs.

Other literature cited:

Kirwan, G. M. 1996. Family Rostratulidae (Painted-Snipes). Pp. 292-301 in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., & Sargatal, J., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World vol. 3. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Sibley, C. G., and B. L. Monroe, Jr. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

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Page created 13-15 Dec 2001, revised 1 Mar 2003