Marbled Godwit

Limosa fedoa

(c) Ron Wolf
  • Snipe, Sandpipers, Phalaropes, and allies
  • Charadriiformes
  • Aguja canela, Picopando canelo, Aguja moteado, Zarapito moteado
  • Barge marbrée
Immense flocks of Marbled Godwits once paraded down the Atlantic seaboard each autumn. Today, that parade is a thin line. Like the Hudsonian Godwit, this large, conspicuous sandpiper is remarkable for its pre-migration diet of aquatic plant tubers in the fall. "Marbled" refers to the extensive speckled pattern of black and beige across the godwit's upper parts.
(c) Shawn Carey
Appearance Description
Outside the breeding season, the Marbled Godwit is a pale yellowish brown from face to under-tail. The upper parts are mottled black and buff. The head has a small mottled cap and weak eye line. The long, slightly upcurved bill has an orange tone from the base to about half its length, and then continues dark to the tip. The long legs are also dark. In flight, this godwit flashes a pale orange patch in the upper wing and a clean cinnamon under-wing; these colors distinguish it from other godwits. Breeding Marbled Godwits are strongly marked with fine, black barring covering the neck, chest, and belly. This shorebird grows to 18 inches long, weighs about 13 ounces, and has a wingspan of 30 inches.
Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution
Most Marbled Godwits breed on the Great Plains of North America. Smaller populations breed along the southern shores of Canada's Saint James Bay and the western end of the Alaska Peninsula. This shorebird winters coastally, from the Carolinas to southern Florida, and on the Gulf Coast from western Louisiana to the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. On the Pacific Coast, the Marbled Godwit ranges from central California through Costa Rica.
A legend for the range map to the right can be found here.
Never far from water, the Marbled Godwit breeds on a variety of short grasslands and prefers shallow seasonal pools or ponds. During migration and on its wintering grounds, this godwit inhabits mud and sand flats, shallow tidal waters, and freshwater marshes.
The Marbled Godwit consumes clams, snails, crabs, and marine worms—especially bristle worms–by probing deeply or picking items from surfaces. During breeding, insects, leeches, and spiders are important foods. In preparation for fall migration, this sandpiper gorges on algae and sago pond weed tubers, which constitute up to 86% of its diet by volume.
Despite the Marbled Godwit's size and open breeding habitat, its breeding biology has not been well studied. Monogamous pairs appear to reunite before entering the breeding grounds. Breeding territories are large—up to 220 acres. Courtship includes high aerial displays by the male, joint flights, and ceremonial scraping. The male selects a site and digs several scrapes, which the female inspects.

In a shallow depression lined mostly with grasses, the female usually lays four eggs. The pale yellow to olive eggs are marked with small patches and lines of brown or purple. The pair incubates the eggs for 23 to 26 days. The chicks emerge fully feathered and precocial; they can walk and feed themselves. Marbled Godwits defend their young vigorously from potential threats of all sizes: from ravens and cranes to foxes and bears. Juvenile Marbled Godwits appear to migrate two to three weeks after the adults.

Marbled Godwits migrate through North America in April and early May, usually covering medium to short distances. Fall migration is protracted, lasting from late June into early November. Marbled Godwits migrate in loose flocks that often rearrange their lines. In fall, females often depart the breeding grounds before males and juveniles.
CBC Graph
Graph Legend
Annual Population Indices
  • 172,500
  • 171,500
  • Moderate population declines and small population size
Population Status Trends
With market hunting restricted in North America, Marbled Godwit populations stabilized, though recent Breeding Bird Surveys indicate small declines. Surveys at Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, South Carolina,  recorded a decline of about 30% between 1988 and 2002. These negative population trends, along with a small population size, and threats on the breeding and wintering grounds, have prompted the Canadian and U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plans to consider the Marbled Godwit a "species of high concern." The Marbled Godwit is a "species of conservation concern" in South Carolina, a "monitoring species" in Montana, and a "conservation priority" in North Dakota, where this sandpiper breeds at its highest densities.
An explanation of the Annual Indices graph displayed to the right can be found here.
Conservation Issues
Requiring large territories in a vanishing landscape, the Marbled Godwit has adapted to agricultural development and can breed on range lands, providing controlled burns and grazing are timed to accommodate nesting. The invasion of exotic species, fire suppression, draining of seasonal wetlands, highway expansion, and conversion of shortgrass prairie to cropland all continue to degrade the godwit's breeding habitat. Wintering and migrating habitats are also threatened. The San Francisco Bay area, where an estimated 10% of all Marbled Godwits stop in spring, has lost 85% of its tidal marshes.
 South Carolina's Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Plan calls for regular surveys for the Marbled Godwit and the integrated management of wetlands for waterfowl and shorebirds. The Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center lists many management practices that can benefit the Marbled Godwit during breeding, including maintaining wetlands, which this species often uses in summer; preserving large tracks of continuous habitat; and encouraging regular grazing, mowing, and burning during the appropriate season.
What You Can Do
Take a break from winter and visit the conspicuous Marbled Godwit at one of its warm coastal locations, like the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.
Conduct and report a migratory shorebird survey. Visit the International Shorebird Survey website for their protocol and other information.
Pets, children, and hikers can disturb shorebirds by approaching too closely. Along beaches or marshes, respect the Marbled Godwits' natural caution, and give them room to forage and rest.
Join a local conservation group to limit development in the Northern Plains grasslands.
If you own suitable habitat, conservation easements, especially with controlled burns and managed grazing, can be an effective tool for managing land to benefit Marbled Godwits.
For more actions you can take, including Audubon activities, please visit our resources page.
More Information
If you own or manage shortgrass prairie land, the Colorado Bird Conservancy's book, Best Management Practices for Shortgrass Prairie Birds: A Landowner's Guide, offers practical and economically viable strategies for agriculture that benefits birds like the Marbled Godwit.
Visit our resources page for more information about this species.
Natural History References
Gratto-Trevor, C. L. 2000. Marbled Godwit (Limosa fedoa). In The Birds of North America, No. 492 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
Kaufman, Kenn. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.
Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
Conservation Status References
Dechant, J. A., M. L. Sondreal, D. H. Johnson, L. D. Igl, C. M. Goldade, M. P. Nenneman, and B. R. Euliss. 1998 (revised 2001). Effects of management practices on grassland birds: Marbled Godwit. Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, Jamestown, ND. 11 pages.
Donaldson, G. M., et al. Canadian Shorebird Conservation Plan. Canadian Wildlife Service. Minister of Public Works and Government Services, Ottawa, Ontario. 2000.
Gratto-Trevor, C. L. 2000. Marbled Godwit (Limosa fedoa). In The Birds of North America, No. 492 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
Kaufman, Kenn. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.
Migratory Shorebird Guild, Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Plan - 2005. South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. 5 Pages.
Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
U. S. Shorebird Conservation Plan. 2004. High Priority Shorebirds 2004. Unpublished Report, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MBSP 4107, Arlington, VA 22203. 5 pages.