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Birder Jargon Project: Keeping your wits

August 24, 2011
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One more shorebird post before moving on to something else.

While peeps, dowitchers, and yellowlegs get a lot of the attention when it comes to identification issues, there’s not much more exciting than peering out on your local mudflat and finding a flock of massive godwits huddling in the deeper water or striding with purpose across the grassy flats.  Of the four shorebird species in the genus Limosa, three breed in North America and two are seen with some regularity on the continent.  An additional two godwit can also be found in Europe and Asia and all species are known for undertaking epic migrations, including the longest non-stop flight by any terrestrial bird by the Asian Bar-tailed Godwit and one of the longest migrations in the Western Hemisphere in the Americas-spanning Hudsonian.

Godwits have long inspired the people that have watched them, not only for their massive size and their impressive peregrinations, but for their apparent fitness for the dinner table.  The big, tasty shorebirds make their first appearance in print, Latin, in 1544 as “godwittam”, eventually anglicized to “godwitte” and further shortened to the name we all know and love today.  The actual etymology is unknown so far as I can find, though the Oxford English Dictionary suggests the name comes from “God” and “-wit”, which means “to know”.  The mind reels at explanations as to why the bird was named “to know God”, but it practically invites the joke that God only knows where the name came from.   A more likely, but less poetic, explanation comes from the Old English, where God simply means good and wihte means creature.  This one almost certainly refers to the dinner table.

Hudsonian Godwit in North Carolina. A good bird out here!

Because the original godwit, the Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa) is a European bird, the nicknames for the species are generally all derived from British birding slang.  Unfortunately, that slang is pretty simple.  Like so many British birds in the cradle of English-language ornithology, Black-tailed Godwit is simply Godwit in the same way that Winter Wren is Wren and Eurasian Wigeon is Wigeon.  I’d say it’s silly that they can get away with that but well, it’s Britain.  So many of our greatest ornithologists have been British, many of our modern-day experts use superfluous U’s and spell gray with an E.  And so many American birders look to Big Brother Britain’s birding culture as something to aspire to be.

But Europe has a second godwit (small G this time), Bar-tailed (Limosa lapponica), and in order to differentiate from The Godwit, it needed a different name.  Like a hamburger with a Boca burger patty, the best thing to do is drop the middle.  What you have left from Bar-tailed Godwit is simply “Barwit“.  And from there, we look at our North American birds.

Marbled Godwit (Limosa fedoa) the biggest homebody of the bunch in that its migration generally maxes out at 2-3000 miles instead of the 8,000 mile treks of it’s cogeners, is shortened to “Marwit“.  The dark-underwinged Great Plains wanderer, Hudsonian Godwit (Limosa haemastica) comes to “Hudwit“.

Different parts of the continent have different default godwits.  Marwit is generally the most common seen across much of the continent, as they winter along the southern coasts in good numbers, while Hudwit is a notable species just about anywhere except in staging areas in the northeast and along the central flyway.  Whichever one you see though, you’ll be prepared.

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One Comment
  1. Kent Fiala permalink
    August 24, 2011 6:56 pm

    I think I’ve seen speculation that godwit is onomatopoetic.

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