view counter

The American Oystercatcher

Now I know how this bird got its name

Photo by Wayne Bierbaum

As the tide was falling in Boca Ciega Bay in Florida, I watched a bird called the American oystercatcher walk over the top of an oyster bar.  Covered by only an inch or two of water, the oysters were open and actively feeding. So were the oystercatchers, deftly stabbing their knife-like bills into an oyster, cutting its closing muscle and extracting the meat. When the tide was lower and the oysters closed, the birds loudly flew away.

          That was the first time I saw the unique skills of these birds and understood how they got their name.

          The people-shy American oystercatcher is a large shoreline bird about the size of a crow with a dark red bill and orange eyes in a red eye-ring. They feed at the tideline, eating sand crabs, coquinas, clams and, of course, oysters. At low tide they look for oysters, and at high tide they catch crabs.

          Oystercatchers are a social species often in small social or familial groups. They nest along beaches above the high water mark, which makes them vulnerable to development, stray cats and beach traffic. Entire nesting areas have been swamped by storms and extreme tides.

          Each pair’s two to four eggs, loosely guarded by both parents, are difficult to see in the sand. After hatching, the chicks immediately leave the nest and are quite mobile on foot but can’t fly for three weeks. The babies chase their parents along the edge of waves to be fed.

          The Pacific Coast has the black oystercatcher, all black except for its red bill. It nests on rocky cliffs and feeds in the intertidal zone on mussels, clams and crabs.  

          Both species of oystercatchers have very loud voices. If you were to startle one, it would startle you in return with a piercing scream. At that oyster bed in Florida, as the birds flew in, I could hear them calling to each other even though they were more than a mile away.