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A snipe hunt, a form of wild-goose chase that is also known as a fool's errand, is a type of practical joke that involves experienced people making fun of credulous newcomers by giving them an impossible or imaginary task. The origin of the term is a practical joke where inexperienced campers are told about a bird or animal called the snipe as well as a usually preposterous method of catching it, such as running around the woods carrying a bag or making strange noises. Incidentally, the snipe (a family of shorebirds) is difficult to catch for experienced hunters, so much so that the word "sniper" is derived from it to refer to anyone skilled enough to shoot one.[1]

In the most popular version of the snipe hunt, especially in the American South, a newcomer is taken deep into the woods late at night and told to make a clucking noise while holding a large sack. The others, who are in on the joke, say that they will sneak away and then walk back towards the newcomer, thereby driving snipes towards the bag holder. The frightened snipes, they say, will be attracted to the clucking noise and be easily caught in the bag. The newcomer is then simply left in the dark forest, holding the bag, to eventually realize his gullibility and find his way home or back to camp.

A wild goose chase can also be more serious, either a deliberate attempt to thwart an opponent by sending him/her off on a quest based on misinformation, or a mistake on one's own part leading to a hopeless quest.[2]

Fool's errand

A fool's errand is a task that cannot be accomplished because of fate or because it is a joke. It comes mainly in two varieties: trying to find something that does not exist, or trying to accomplish an impossible task. Others who are aware of the prank will often redirect the victim to several different places.

The prank often involves the use of jargon, where the immediate meaning is not obvious. It can also depend on a new recruit's unfamiliarity with the business, such as being sent on a search for an ID10T form (IDIOT).

In carny, a type of fool's errand is known as the key to the midway.

Common items

  • In the Air Force, some activities such as gathering "flight line" or a bucket of "prop wash" have similar purpose, sending someone out for a bottle of "K9P Lube" (Canine Pee/dog urine).
  • Machinery parts that sound real, but if considering the actual machine, cannot exist: muffler bearings, diesel engine spark plugs, piston return spring, canooten valve, headlight fluid, or a top/bottom radiator hose for a Volkswagen Beetle (which is air-cooled and therefore has no radiator).
  • Tools that do not exist, such as a metric adjustable wrench, a sky hook, a key to the oarlocks, a key to the pitcher's box, 3-foot metre stick, shelf-stretcher, board stretcher, or left-handed versions of usually achiral tools (wrench, hammer, or screwdriver), or tools made out of unlikely materials such as hammers made of glass. Oftentimes this is switched to where the tool to be used is real but the task is not, such as the Army prank of making the butt of the joke tap armor on the side of a vehicle with a hammer to check for 'soft spots' by sound.
  • Fetching a quantity of something that can not be contained, for example, a bucket of vacuum or of propane, a bubble for a spirit level, steam, flight, a box of replacment RPMs, or shore line, striped paint, prop wash, or sparks (especially sparks from a grinder).
  • Things that have no physical existence, such as telling an orchestra member in whose part is written tacet to "go find the tacet" as if it were a musical instrument.
  • Items that are patently ridiculous (such as striped/camouflage paint, dehydrated water, smoke bender, a box of nail holes or a rubber flag for rainy days) or figurative (such as elbow grease).

Regional creatures

Many regions have an imaginary being used as a snipe hunt. In Bavaria, tourists were taken on extended expeditions to search for chamois eggs, or on all-night Wolpertinger stakeouts. In Scotland, tourists are told about the Wild Haggis hunts, while in the Western United States, they may be warned about the savage jackalope. In Australia, foreigners may be warned to remain alert for drop bears, mythical creatures that are a popular joke amongst the locals. In Wyoming, natives warn tourists to watch out for rattlesnake eggs. (Rattlesnakes don't lay eggs; they give birth to live offspring.)

In France, Switzerland and the north of Italy, particularly in mountains like the Alps or the Jura Mountains, tourists are sent to hunt the dahu, an imaginary mammal whose left legs are shorter than its right legs, so that it can walk easily along a mountain slope. A practical way to hunt the beast is to call him from the back: it turns around and falls, because of its long legs on the top and his short legs on the bottom. In Spain, new people at a campsite are sent at night to hunt gamusino, an imaginary and terrifying animal which is usually said to only appear at night.

In the Philippines, a mythical mammal called a Sigbin or Amamayong has been used in a more criminal manner. The descriptions of the creatures vary, but generally, they are said to have the curious habit of walking backwards with its head twisted between its hindlegs to see and having the ability to turn invisible at will. They are considered members of the fairy/underworld folk, who are usually portrayed as malevolent. The popular notion that a sigbin would bring wealth and good luck to anyone who manages to catch one was used successfully by con men in extorting large amounts of money from gullible families. These self-styled 'sigbin hunters' often using pictures of albino rabbits or kangaroos to the uneducated as 'proof' of actually having seen one. Sigbins were also said to have blood which can cure any kind of ailment (a popular con man catchphrase being Even AIDS!) which also made families of people with a mysterious incurable ailment with no access to doctors more vulnerable to such attempts at fraud. Similar confidence tricks also involve other popular legends like Yamashita's gold.

There is evidence however that these legends may have actual basis in real life animals which are now relatively scarce or had always had relatively brief contact with humans. In particular the recent discovery of the cat-fox in Borneo, the intimidatingly large and loud flying foxes which spawned the myths of Aswangs, and certain large birds with the distinctive kokokokoko cry from which the legend of the predatory monster bird Kokok springs from.

Notes

Further reading

  • The Little Red Book of Firehouse Pranks by Jeff Hibbard (ISBN 0-9667810-0-7)







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