GODWIT, a word of unknown origin, the name commonly applied to a marsh-bird in great repute, when fattened, for the table, and formerly abundant in the fens of Norfolk, the Isle of Ely and Lincolnshire. In Turner’s days (1544) it was worth three times as much as a snipe, and at the same period Belon said of it—“C’est vn Oyseau es delices des Françoys.” Casaubon, who Latinized its name “Dei ingenium” (Ephemerides, 19th September 1611), was told by the “ornithotrophaeus” he visited at Wisbech that in London it fetched twenty pence. Its fame as a delicacy is perpetuated by many later writers, Ben Jonson among them, and Pennant says that in his time (1766) it sold for half-a-crown or five shillings. Under the name godwit two perfectly distinct species of British birds were included, but that which seems to have been especially prized is known to modern ornithologists as the black-tailed godwit, Limosa aegocephala, formerly called, from its loud cry, a yarwhelp,[1] shrieker or barker, in the districts it inhabited. The practice of netting this bird in large numbers during the spring and summer, coupled with the gradual reclamation of the fens, to which it resorted, has now rendered it but a visitor in England; and it probably ceased from breeding regularly in England in 1824 or thereabouts, though under favourable conditions it may have occasionally laid its eggs for some thirty years later or more (Stevenson, Birds of Norfolk, ii. 250). This godwit is a species of wide range, reaching Iceland, where it is called Jardraeka (= earth-raker), in summer, and occurring numerously in India in winter. Its chief breeding-quarters seem to extend from Holland eastwards to the south of Russia. The second British species is that which is known as the bar-tailed godwit, L. lapponica, and this seems to have never been more than a bird of double passage in the United Kingdom, arriving in large flocks on the south coast about the 12th of May, and, after staying a few days, proceeding to the north-eastward. It is known to breed in Lapland, but its eggs are of great rarity. Towards autumn the young visit the English coasts, and a few of them remain, together with some of the other species, in favourable situations throughout the winter. One of the local names by which the bar-tailed godwit is known to the Norfolk gunners is scamell, a word which, in the mouth of Caliban (Tempest, II. ii.), has been the cause of much perplexity to Shakespearian critics.

The godwits belong to the group Limicolae, and are about as big as a tame pigeon, but possess long legs, and a long bill with a slight upward turn. It is believed that in the genus Limosa the female is larger than the male. While the winter plumage is of a sober greyish-brown, the breeding-dress is marked by a predominance of bright bay or chestnut, rendering the wearer a very beautiful object. The black-tailed godwit, though varying a good deal in size, is constantly larger than the bar-tailed, and especially longer in the legs. The species may be further distinguished by the former having the proximal third of the tail-quills pure white, and the distal two-thirds black, with a narrow white margin, while the latter has the same feathers barred with black and white alternately for nearly their whole length.

America possesses two species of the genus, the very large marbled godwit or marlin, L. fedoa, easily recognized by its size and the buff colour of its axillaries, and the smaller Hudsonian godwit, L. hudsonica, which has its axillaries of a deep black. This last, though less numerous than its congener, seems to range over the whole of the continent, breeding in the extreme north, while it has been obtained also in the Strait of Magellan and the Falkland Islands. The first seems not to go farther southward than the Antilles and the Isthmus of Panama.

From Asia, or at least its eastern part, two species have been described. One of them, L. melanuroides, differs only from L. aegocephala in its smaller size, and is believed to breed in Amurland, wintering in the islands of the Pacific, New Zealand and Australia. The other, L. uropygialis, is closely allied to and often mistaken for L. lapponica, from which it chiefly differs by having the rump barred like the tail. This was found breeding in the extreme north of Siberia by Dr von Middendorff, and ranges to Australia, whence it was, like the last, first described by Gould. (A. N.) 

  1. This name seems to have survived in Whelp Moor, near Brandon, in Suffolk.