Thursday, September 20, 2012

Go with God, Godwit

Godwits are intrinsically elegant birds and prodigious migrators, but they have one of the more etymologically befuddling names in the North American bird world. I saw a rampaging pack of Marbled Godwits at the Salton Sea a few weeks ago, where they lent class and poise to an otherwise harsh environment. 

Arriving back in Phoenix I figured, "Hey, they fly 7,000 miles nonstop while migrating. I can spend some time trying to figure out when and/or why they picked up their unusual name." 
I'm sure that flying 7,000 miles nonstop is still the more difficult task, but Godwit etymology is no picnic either.

After trading in many of my internet tokens and credits, the earliest instance of the name I could find was in a middle english dictionary entry that's actually talking about Attagens, a Mediterranean-area species of Sand Grouse. It did not lend any real reasoning or clues to the Godwit name (which I can only guess is used in a somewhat literal sense of 'God-wit': 'God-knower'). Here's the entry, from an english dictionary written in 1552:

"Attagen and Attagena, a byrde, which is found in Ionia. Thei are deceiued that take him for a woodcocke, it is most lyke a byrde called amonge vs a godwitte."

What is perhaps the most strange of all is that Grouses really don't look much like Godwits. 

These 'God-knower' birds don't look especially theological to me, at least not compared to Monk Parakeets, Northern Cardinals, or Orange Bishops. True enough, there is something heavenly, even angelic, in a 7,000 mile sustained flight, and these birds do have stunning plumage. However, I doubt the chroniclers and namers of the mid-1500s would likely have known about their migratory habits, or found them so awe-inspiring compared to Eurasian Bee-eaters or Hoopoes. Wit,' or 'witte,' could be taken to mean 'white' in old Dutch, but that doesn't really apply more than anything else.

 Despite their mysterious moniker, Godwits are great birds to observe, as I wish them well as they depart on their long journeys this fall. Go with God, Godwits.