What’s a Woggin?
Penguins have been called many things over the centuries. Maori named the Yellow-eyed Penguin of New Zealand the Hoiho, which means “noisemaker” in reference to its loud call. Aboriginal Australians named the Little Blue Penguin “gur-roo-mul”. In Swahili, a penguin might be called “ndege ya nchi za baridi” meaning “big cold country bird”. This last version gave rise to the scientific name Dege hendeyi for one of South Africa’s four Pliocene fossil penguin species. Besides having lots of different names, there has been historical confusion over the word “penguin” itself, and it has been applied both to true penguin and to the recently extinct Great Auk in historical accounts.
One name that historians of ornithology seem to have overlooked until recently is “woggin”. This name appears in many whaler’s writings during the 1700s and 1800s, and is variously spelled wogæn, waggin, wargan, wargin, waugin, wogen, woggin, woging, woglin, or yawgin. In 2007, Storrs Olson and Judith Lund published a paper cataloging the various records of this name. It appears to have been applied to penguins and auks, and it is not too surprising that sailors might confuse two types of black and white feathered, flippered, flightless diving birds. Apparently the word fell out of favor by the era of the Civil War and was until now lost to history. By checking the geographical coordinates associated with each use of “woggin” (usually readily available in ship’s records), the authors were able to pinpoint which references applied to Great Auks, which only occurred in the Northern Hemisphere, and which applied to penguins (which live in the Southern Hemisphere, aside from the equatorial Galapagos Penguin).
Why should we care? Beyond helping us interpret historical records, uncovering the word woggin can help us understand extinct birds. Luckily, no penguins have gone extinct since the whaling era, but the Great Auk was tragically wiped out by humans in the 1840s or 1850s. We know very little about this bird because few ornithologists conducted studies while it was still alive. Most human encounters therefor took place when the auks were on shore nesting in North Atlantic islands. However, during the rest of the year Great Auks appear to have roamed far and wide in the ocean. For example, a sailor’s log from the sloop Sandwich reports that on May 10th 1762, “wogæns” were sighted off the outer banks of North Carolina. Such records can help us recreate migration patterns and shed more light on this remarkable vanished bird’s ecology.
Beane, J. F. 1905. From forecastle to cabin. New York: The Editor Publishing Co.
Olson, S.L. and J.N. Lund. 2007. Whalers and woggins: a new vocabulary for interpreting some early accounts of the great auk and penguins. Archives of Natural History 34: 69-78.