With its small population and remote nesting habitats, the breeding range of the Hudsonian Godwit is poorly understood. An extremely long-distance migrant, the Hudsonian Godwit makes a nonstop flight of several thousand miles each fall. Spring migration is more relaxed, with birds making stopovers in the Great Plains on their way north.
Hudsonian Godwits are thought to breed at two years of age. Few nests have been studied, but some pairs switch incubation duties at the same time each day. It is unclear how long they live, although the related Marbled Godwit has been known to live up to 29 years in the wild.
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Description of the Hudsonian Godwit
The Hudsonian Godwit is a tall, upright shorebird with a long, upcurved bill that is reddish at the base and darker at the tip. It has a black tail with white uppertail coverts, and its plumage is marked with black both above and below. Length: 16 in. Wingspan: 29 in.
Sexes similar, female less colorful. Male darker reddish below and more heavily marked with black above.
Seasonal change in appearance
Winter birds are mostly gray above and below.
Resembles breeding females.
Marshes and mudflats.
Insects, mollusks, and crustaceans.
Forages by walking and bill-probing.
Breeds in arctic areas and winters in South America.
Bent Life History
Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Hudsonian Godwit.
The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.
Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History
Hudsonian Godwits sometimes return to the same breeding area in subsequent years.
Hudsonian Godwits sometimes perch in tree tops on the breeding grounds.
The most commonly heard call is a “whit” given when alarmed.
- Marbled Godwit
Marbled Godwits are tawnier in color and do not have black tails.
The nest is a depression on the ground.
Color: Dark olive with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at about 22-25 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) soon after hatching but remain with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Hudsonian Godwit
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Hudsonian Godwit – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
LIMOSA HAEMASTICA (Linnaeus)
I can count on the fingers of one hand the red-letter days when I have been privileged to see this rare and handsome wader. It has always been among the great desiderata of bird collectors. Its eggs are exceedingly rare in collections. Many ornithologists have never seen it in life. I can find no evidence that it was ever common. All the earlier writers reported it as uncommon or rare. Audubon (1840) referred to it as “of rare occurrence in any part of the United States.” He never saw it in life and handled only a few market specimens in the flesh.
Spring: From its winter home in far southern South America the Hudsonian godwit migrates in spring by some unknown route to the coast of Texas, where it arrives in April. I saw three adults and collected a pair in fine spring plumage near Aransas Pass on May 17, 1923. From Texas and Louisiana it migrates northward through the Mississippi Valley, central Canada and the Mackenzie Valley to the Arctic coast. Prof. ‘William Rowan in his notes refers to it as a scarce, but regular, spring migrant in Alberta; his dates are between April 29 and May 29. He and C. G. Harrold (1923) recorded 24 birds between these dates in 1923. Their records are as follows:
April 29, 2 flocks of 6 each (also 2 avocets on this date, although on the 30th it snowed all day) ; May 7, 2 Hudsonians at the lake and one with a party of marbled godwits at a muddy slough a few miles away; May 8, a flock of 4 Hudsonian and 2 marbled; May 15, flock of 3 Hudsonian, 2 marbled, and 1 Willet; May 22, a fine male Hudsoniaa with 8 or 9 marbled. One other specimen was seen flying over about May 10.
At Whitewater Lake, in Manitoba, Mr. Harrold noted one each day on May 10 and 11, 1924, and 12 at the same place in 1925, practically all between May 13 and 20. I saw one at Lake Winnipegosis on June 5, 1913, a late date. On the Atlantic coast it is known only as a rare straggler in the spring and it is practically unknown on the Pacific coast.
Nesting: Practically all of what little we know of the nesting habits of the Hudsonian godwit is contained in Roderick MacFarlane’s notes. A female and four eggs were taken near Fort Anderson on June 9, 1862, from a nest on the ground made of a “few decayed leaves lying in a small hole scooped in the earth.” Another nest on the Lower Anderson was “on the borders of a small lake” and was made of “a few withered leaves placed in a hole or depression in the ground.”
A set of four eggs, in the Thayer collection, was collected by Bishop J. 0. Stringer at Mackenzie Bay, June 30, 1897, from ” a nest situated in a hollow in the grass.” Edward Arnold also has a set of four eggs, taken by Bishop Stringer in the same locality on June 29, 1899; the nest was “in a tuft of grass on an island in Mackenzie Bay.”
Eggs: The Hudsonian godwit probably lays four eggs normal]y, though there are sets of three in collections. What few eggs I have seen, not over a baker’s dozen, are ovate pyriform in shape and have little or no gloss. The ground colors vary from “dark olive buff” to “olive buff,” or from “light brownish olive” to “ecrue olive.” They are usually sparingly marked with rather obscure spots, irregularly distributed, but generally mostly around the larger end, in darker shades of similar colors, such as “buffy olive,” “light brownish olive.” ” huffy brown,” ” bister,” or ” sepia.” There are usually underlying spots of “hair brown” or shades of “drab,” and some eggs have a few black dots at the larger end.
A set in the United States National Museum is thus described for me by J. H. Riley:
No two eggs in this set are alike. They vary in ground color from a little darker than “citrine drab,” through “light brownish olive,” to “dark olive buff.” The darkest egg has a zone of ‘olive brown” spots at the larger end, ~vlth a few “clove brown ” dots here and there, and a few scattered spots and blotches of “olive brown ” over the rest of the egg. The next dnrkest egg is similar, but with the contrast between the ground color and the “olive brown” zone more pronounced and an increase in size and number of the “clove brown” spots. The lightest (“dark olive buff” ground) egg has a solid cap of “clove brown” at the larger end and quite numerous blotches, scrawls, and spots of “clove brown ” and ” olive brown,” with a few shell markings of ” drab” over the rest of the surface.
Some of the eggs I have seen are much like well-marked eggs of the black-tailed godwit. The measurements of 27 eggs average 55.2 by 38.1 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 60.6 by 39.6, 56 by 41.2, and 51 by 35 millimeters.
Plumages: I have never seen a downy young Hudsonian godwit nor any very young juvenals. The sexes are alike in the juvenal plumage and probably alt through the first year. The plumages are alike in winter but the females are somewhat larger. A young female in juvenal plumage. taken in Maine in September, is similar to the winter adult, except that the crown is more streaked with dusky; the feathers of the mantle are “sepia,” edged with “pinkish cinnamon”; the scapulars an(l tertials are edged, notched, or barred with “cinnamon,” and the tail is tipped with huffy white. I have seen birds in this plumage lip to October 13; but usually the partial postjuvenal molt of the body plumage and probably some of the scapulars and tertials begins in October. Material is lacking to illustrate the first prenuptial molt, which takes place in South America. Probably this molt is very limited in young birds. A female, taken on May 28 in Wisconsin, probably in first nuptial plumage, shows a mixture of fresh adult nuptial body feathers both above and below, and fresh tail feathers, but the primaries are worn. Probably at the next molt, the first postnuptial, which is complete, the adult winter plumage is assumed.
Adults have an extensive prenuptial molt, involving everything hut the wings and perhaps the tail. This is accomplished during the late winter or early spring before the birds migrate. Dr. Alexander Wetmore (1926) says:
A male shot March 7 Is in full winter plumage with worn primaries but newly grown tail feathers and lesser wing-coverts. Two females shot March 8 have renewed the flight feathers and tail and have the breeding plumage growing rapidly on the body.
The postnuptial molt is complete; the body molt begins in July and is well advanced towards completion when the birds reach our shores in August or September; the wings are apparently molted later, after the birds reach their winter homes in South America. There is a striking difference between the richly colored nuptial plumage and the dull and somber winter plumage, with the brownish gray upper parts and the pale grayish buff under parts.
Strangely enough, all the recent manuals that I have seen state or imply that the sexes are alike in nuptial plumage; and this in spite of the fact that many years ago Swainson and Richardson (1831) called attention to the striking difference between the two sexes, which are decidedly unlike. In the male the underparts are deep, rich brown, “Mikado brown” or “Kaiser brown,” with much individual variation in the amount of black transverse barring, which is sometimes almost entirely lacking in the center of the breast. In the female, which is always somewhat larger, the under parts are barred with white, dusky, and brown; the feathers of the flanks are brown with three or four black or dusky bars and broad white tips; on the breast oniy the outer half of the feather is brown, the remainder is white, with two or three dusky bars and a broad white tip. Careless sexing may have caused the oft-repeated error.
Food: Edward H. Forbush (1925) says that “the food of the Hudsonian godwit includes worms, many insects (including horseflies and mosquitoes), mollusks and crustaceans, and various small forms of marine life.”
Behavior: He also says:
While with us it seems to have a preference for sandy shores and sand spits, but it also frequents mud flats, beaches, and creeks in the salt marsh, and sometimes goes to the uplands after insects.
Dr. L. C. Sanford (1903), writing of the habits of the Hudsonian godwit in the Magdalen Islands, says:
On the islands where these hirds congregate they frequent the large open lagoons where the low tide leaves exposed miles of sand bars. Here they follow the water’s edge and ~vade in up to the full length of their long legs, feeding on animalculae nnd small larvae, for which their bill is peculiarly adapted, having the same flexible tip as that of the Wilson’s snipe. With the rising water, first the small sandpipers, then the larger birds are driven from the fiats; last of all, the godwit. They start in flocks of from 10 to 20 and keep well in the center of the lagoon, flying over the flooded flats, avoiding carefully all land, even the farthest points and Islands.
The long black lines of birds undulating in their flight can readily be distinguished from any other shore bird. They have a very dark appearance. In a short half hour the last ilocks have passed and there is no further flight until the next tide. At high water they congregate on the upper beaches, well out of reach of any disturber. For a long time it was impossible to arrange a blind in the range of the flight, but finally by piling up heaps of seaweed and staking them down far out in the shallow water, we managed to kill a small number. They quickly Icarned the danger, however, and would keep on their course just out of reach.
Dr. D. G. Elliot (1895) writes:
Like the other godwit, its larger relative, it is a shy bird during migration and keeps a watchful eye on an intruder in its domain, rising at a considerable distance and uttering its shrill cry. It sometimes decoys readily, setting Its wings and sailing up to the wooden counterfeits, lured on by a close imitation of its note, hut soon discovers the deception and either alights only for a moment or else wheels about over the decoys, and hastily departs, provided It escapes the rain of shot from the discharged gun of the concealed sportsman. About Hudson’s flay it is met with in large flocks, resorting to the beach when the tide Is low, and feeding on the crustacea it discovers there, retiring to the marshes as the tide rises.
Professor Rowan writes to me:
Like the majority of waders, this godwit can swim with ease and has been observed swimming of its own accord when crossing from one sand ridge to another, and also wb~n dropped into deep water after being shot In flight but not killed.
The flight of the species is distinctly “pioverish.” The greater contrast, against its white parts, of its darker balance makes it distinguishable at considerable distance from the willet when in flight. They can easily he mistaken for each other if casually observed, especially in the grey plumage of young and fall adults.
In walking this godwit has much the same atiitudes of the marbled, generally very ungraceful and altogether hunched up, neck closely drawn into the body. It is, however, altogether warier than the marbled and carries Its neck stretched out more frequently.
On the whole it Is an extremely silent species. I have seen dozens of birds but have only henrd a call twice. This sounded like ta: it on both occasions, lest raucous than the marbles call but in general quite reminiscent of it.
Doctor Wetmore (1926) says:
In plain gray winter plumage this godwit is as inconspicuous and nondescript in appearance as a willet. In general size it suggests a greater yallowlegs, but can he distinguished at any distance by its quiet carriage, for it does not practice the constant tilting that is the habit of the yellowlegs. These godwits sought company with scattered flocks of stilts or smaller shore birds, and In feeding walked rapidly, at times in water nearly to their bodies or again in the shallows. As they moved they probed rapidly and constantly in the mud with a nervous thrusting motion, often with the beak immersed clear to their eyes. Morsels of food that were encountered ;vere passed rapidly up the length of time bill and swallowed. When their movements carried them too near the stilts the latter hushed them about, and made them run rapidly to escape their bills, but in spite of this discouragement the godwits remained in as close proximity as permitted to their belligerent neighbors, perhaps, because of similarity in feeding habit. Some Hudsonian godwit gave a low chattering call when flushed, a ioxv qua qua that resembled one of the notes of L. fedoa. As they extend the wings to fly the dark azillars show as a patch of black and in flight the white tail, with black band across the tip is prominent. The birds are hunted to such an extent that they are exceedingly wary. When opportunity offered I took only a few for specimens.
Referring to their habits in Alberta, C. G. llarrold (1923) says:
The Individuals in the parties seen on April 29 were feeding very close together like dowitchers. Not a single bird was seen on dry land and most of them were wading about in Water 4 Inches to 6 Inches deep, one bird swimming after the manner of a yeliowlegs which has waded out of its depth. Although the Hufisonian godwits associate with the marbled, the latter bully them considerably, chasing them away If they approach the marbled too closely when feeding.
Voice: Mr. Harrold (1923) says that “their call note is a soft chip (very unlike the harsh notes of the vociferous marbled), and when alarmed they utter a low sandpiper-like chattering.” They are usually very silent birds.
Field marlee: Tn spring plumage the Hudsonian godwit can be recognized easily at almost any distance by the rich brown underparts, almost black tipper parts, white rump, and black tail; at a long distance it looks very black. On the wing in all plumages the white rump and black tail are conspicuous and the wings are diagnostic; the axillars are jet black and the lining of the wing is black; the wings are nearly black, with a small, central white patch, much smaller than that of the xvillet.. An immature bird while standing, might be mistaken for a willet, but it is a much slenderer bird and has a longer, slenderer bill.
Fall: Hudsonian godwits gather in flocks on the western shores of Hudson Bay, preparing for their eastward migration to the Atlantic coasts of the Maritime Provinces and New England. The normal migration route is probably over the ocean from Nova Scotia to British Guiana or Brazil, the birds being seen in New England and Long Island only when driven in by severe storms.
E. A. Preble (1902) saw a number on the beach about 50 miles north of York Factory as early as July 19, and it was last seen by him below Cape Churchill on August 24, 1000. This was the beginning of the eastward mit~ration from Hudson Bay. The species is practically unknown in the interior of southern Canada in the fall.
Doctor Sanford (1903) writes:
I have seen these birds on some of the islands In the Gulf of St. Lawrence in large flocks. They arrive late in July, the first corners being steadily augmented by new arrivals until by the first week of August their greatest abundance hns been reached. From this time on the numbers rapidly decrease, and by the last of the month only odd birds are seen. The young appear about the middle of September, and until October 1 are common in the same locations. On the adjacent mainland and the shores farther south the birds are seldom met with, and then only as odd stragglers. Where they stop next and what their course is on departing is a mystery. I’rohably they keep well ont to the open sea, and along with the golden plover wisely skip the United States in the fall flight south.
As indicated above, Hudsonian godwits evidently pass by New England far out at sea in fair weather, as they are strong, swift fliers, capable of a long, continuous flight. But during heavy easterly storms they are occasionally driven in and onto our coasts. The first one I shot was one of four birds taken on Monomoy Island, Massachusetts, September 5, 1892, after a sevcre northeast storm, which lasted for two days and brought in a heavy flight of shore birds. This was an adult. I have two other birds, both young birds, taken on Cape Cod on October 2 and 4. Mr. Forbush (1912) reports “a flock of about 50 birds seen at Ipswich on August 26, 1908, of which several were killed.” He also says:
On August 13, 1903, a large flight occurred on the Long Island coast and many were killed, but little was heard of them to the southward. The only flight of godwits that is shown on the record of Chatham Beach Hotel for seven years is hi August, 1903. No birds were taken on the 13th, when the great flight appeared on Long Island, for at Chathain the weather apparently was fair, with a west wind. One bird, perhaps a straggler from the Long Island flight, was picked up on the 20th after a southeast wind had blown for two days. On the .26th a northeast wind set in, and ft blew from the east or northeast for six days. On the 29th seven godwits were killed. During the seven years for which the record was kept godwits were taken only singly or in pairs, with the above exception, and the record shows 42 killed all told. Twenty-four were taken during east, north, or northeast winds; eight in northwest winds; six In southwest winds; two in west winds; and only one In a south win(l.
Mr. S. Prescott Pay (1911) reports an unusually heavy flight at Cape Cod from early in August until October 2~2, 1910, during which 25 birds were shot on 17 different dates. He saw a flock of 10 on
August 15, but says:
In most cases they were lone birds and, contrary to their habits, were tame and decoyed readily. However, on September 5, during a heavy easterly storm with a downpour of rain, a flock of 30 to 35 birds went over our stand at Chatham. Instead of alighting, as we supposed they would do, for they appeared very much exhausted, they continued their slow flight and disappeared, going due south in the heaviest part of the storm. However, a man a short way below us shot three of these birds as we watched them go over him high up, and later we found some one else above us had shot one from the same flock only a minute or two earlier. One of these men estimated that the flock contained over 40 birds, so my figures may be too low or else, after he fired, the birds may have separated so that we might have seen only part of the original flock.
lVinter: The winter home of the Hudsonian godwit is in extreme southern South America, from Argentina and Chile south to the Straits of Magellan and the Falkiand Islands.
A. I-I. Holland (1892) says that, in Argentina, it “appears in flocks late in the winter after heavy rains from July t~ August.
They were met with both in summer and winter plumage.” Ernest Gibson (1920) reported it. as formerly “very abundant, in numerous flocks, some of apparently over 1,000,” in the Province of Buenos Aires. He says that: On more than one of these occasions several birds have dropped to my gun. The flock ~vould then again and again sweep round and hover over the individuals In the water, uttering 100(1 cries of distress, quite regardless of my presence in the open and the renewed gunfire. Though the godwit is such an excellent table bird, I found myself unnble to continue the slaughter under these circumstnnces. I might select my birds, but so closely were they packed together that the shots went practically “into the brown,” and caused innumerable cripples.
Conditions have changed since then, for Doctor Wetmore (1926) writes:
Save for a record to he mentioned later, the Hudsonian godwit was first recorded on November 13, 1920, when four, in winter plumage, were found with sm~li sandpipers on the tidal fiats near the month of the Rio Ajo, below Lavalle, Buenos Aires. Two more were seen here on November 15. The species was not noted again until March 3, 1921, when two were seen along the Laguna del Morte in the outskirts of Guamini, Buenos Aires. Four more were found on March 4, one in brown dress and the others still in winter plumage. On March 5 eight were recorded, one only showing distinct signs of breeding plumage. On the day following three passed swiftly northward over the lake without pausing to alight, while on March 7 eight were seen together and a single bird later, and by a lucky shot I secured one, a male.
March 8, 12 that fed in a small bay were so slow in rising that I secured 3.
At dusk 12 more came to roost on a mud bar in company with golden plover.
Though reported 50 years ago as found in great bands and among the most abundant of shore birds in this region, the small number that I have recorded here are all that were observed in continued field work throughout the winter range of the species. I was fortunate in seeing these, as by chance I found a spot where they tnrred in northward migration from some point to the south.
The passing of this fine bird must be a cause for regret among sportsmen and nature lovers alike, to be attributed to the greed of gunners and to the fact that Its large size and gregarious habit made it desirable to secure and when opportunity offered easy to kill in large numbers. There is little hope even under the most rigorous protection that the species can regain its former numbers. It would appear that the small number that remain winter mainly in Patagonia, as the species was encountered in any number only when in migration from that region.
Range: North America, chiefly east of the Rocky Mountains to southern South America. Now almost extinct.
Breeding range: The only eggs of this species that have been collected were taken at Mackenzie Bay and on the Anderson River, Mackenzie. It has been reported in summer from Alaska (Kenni, Nulato, Ugashik, mouth of the Yukon River, and Point Barrow); east to Prince Edward Island and the Magdalen Islands (Audubon); but in no case, save the one above mentioned, is there satisfactory evidence of breeding. Preble found it common on the Barren Grounds south of Cape Eskimo, during the early part of August, and it also was noted by him in the country north of York Factory, in the middle of July.
Winter range: The Hudsonian godwit appears to winter only in southern South America. It has been taken or observed at this season in the Falkland Islands (Mare Harbor) ; Argentina (Chubtit Valley, Lavalle, Azul, Bueuos Aires, and La Plata) ; and Chile (Straits of Magellan, Ancud, and Valparaiso). MacFarlane (1887) reported them as abundant on the coast of Peru (San Juan) on November 9, 1883, but it seems unlikely that they were preparing to wlnter in that latitude.
Spring migration: This species always has been apparently rare on the Atlantic coast in spring and but few records are available. Among these are Maryland, West River, May 6, 1886 (only record for the State); Delaware, Rehoboth, May 8, 1906; and New York, Long Beach, May 23, 1925. Records of spring arrival for the interior are not much more numerous but among these are: Louisiana, Vinton, April 22; Missouri, April 19; Illinois, Albany, April 2~2; Ohio, New Bremen, April 22, and Youngstown, April 26; Michigan, Detroit, May 14; Ontario, Point Pelee, May 13; Iowa, Blue Lake, May 7; Minnesota, Heron Lake, April 19, and Grant County, April 25; Kansas, Lawrence, April 19; Nebraska, Lincoln, May 10; South Dakota, Vermilion, May 8; North Dakota, Harrisburg, May 6; Saskatchewan, Indian Head, May 11; Montana, Terry, May 10; Alberta, Beaverhill Lake, April 28; Mackenzie, Fort Anderson, June 7; and Alaska, Fort Kenai, May 5, Valdez, May 10, Lynn Canal, May 12, and St. Michael, May 22.
Late dates of spring departure are: Ontario, Toronto, June 13; Iowa, Sioux City, May 17; Wisconsin, Albion, June 3; Minnesota, Grant County, May 15, Hallock, May 17. Hallock, May 18, and Mankato, May 25; Nebraska, Lincoln, May 22, and Ceresco, June 12; South Dakota, Vermilion, May 24; North Dakota, Charlson, May 2.2; and Manitoba, Shoal Lake, May 29, and Lake Winnipegosis, June 5.
Fall migration: Early dates of arrival in the fall are: Keewatin, York Factory, July 19; Manitoba, Big Stick Lake, July 21; South Dakota, Artesian, July 10; Iowa, Sioux City, August 12; Ontario, Rupert House, July 30, and Toronto, August 20; Ohio, Pelee Island, August 24; Illinois, Mount Carmel, August 29, and Aledo, September 9; Louisiana, New Orleans, September 27; Rhode Island, Newport, July 29; New York, Shinnecock, August 8, Mastic, August 21, South Oyster Bay, August 25, and Quogue, August 31; New Jersey, Anglesea, August 26; North Carolina, Pea Island, September 13, 1911 (only record for the State); and West Indies, Barbados, October 5, and Dominica, October 8.
Late dates of fall departures are: Keewatin, Cape Eskimo, August 14, and Fort Churchill, August 24; Minnesota, St. Vincent, September 15; Wisconsin, Racine, November 1; Ontario, Ottawa, October 11, and Toronto, October 20; Quebec, Montreal, October 11; Massachusetts, Monomoy Island, October 2, Ipswich, October 20, and Eastham, November 3; Connecticut, Little River marshes, October 11, and Lyme, October 30; Rhode Island, Newport, October 13; and New York, Onondaga Lake, October 13, Branchport, October 29, and Ithaca, November 5.
Casual records: A specimen of the Hudsonian godwit was taken hear St. George, Bermuda, in the fall of 1875.
Egg dates. Arctic Canada: records, June 9 to 30.