“The American Oystercatcher”

Baby Oystercatchers, balls of ivory and beige fluff balancing on tall and tan, skinny but steady legs, look very little like their strikingly handsome, black and white parents who sport long, bright red-orange bills and dull pink legs. The youngsters do have a hint of orange coloring close to their mouths, which tells you where that physical feature is heading in about sixty days. Locals describe the American Oystercatcher as the most recognizable of all North Carolina shorebirds and say that they can be seen year-round on our coast. The beach is their home. They live, eat, colonize, socialize, breed, nest and raise their children on the sand. These poor birds face so many obstacles in life, mainly because their open habitat is so commonly disturbed by people, dogs, opportunistic predators, vehicles and weather. Recently, two infant Oystercatchers were brought to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport because a vehicle driving on the beach rolled over an AO nest. Unfortunately, a couple siblings did not make it, but two were in very good condition. There was no talk of the AO parents being involved in the tragedy, so the staff at the shelter believed they were still out there looking for their babies. After examining the tiny Oystercatchers for injuries and determining their wellness, the decision was made to feed them healthy vittles and return them to a safe zone on the beach close to their nesting site, so their parents could find them. That plan was carried out. With an OWLS staff member monitoring the “reunite,” they were placed higher on the beach in the tall grasses and from a distance the wait began. It wasn’t long before the chicks were calling with a series of conspicuous shrill, piping whistles that sound like “kleeep” or “wiip,” and the parents came running to find them. Success! The parents seemed relieved and extremely content to have their children back. We wish it could have been all of them. American Oystercatchers are large, obvious and noisy, plover-like birds, with strong bills they use for smashing or prying open bivalve mollusks, which is their favorite food. Despite being called an oystercatcher, they actually eat mussels more often than oysters. Interesting to note is their original name “Sea Pie,” before someone witnessed them eating oysters, was changed to oystercatcher in the mid 1700’s. In addition to mussels and oysters, they supplement their diet with other crustaceans, fish, crabs, starfish, worms and insects. Oystercatchers nest on beaches, natural islands off shore and dredged-sand islands and are often the most common breeder in those locations. Oystercatchers face many threats, but they have adapted to survive challenges that nature sends their way. It’s coexistence with humans in salt marshes and dunes areas that threatens them more than weather and even predators such as gulls, crows, raptors and the most persistent and devastating predators, raccoons. Their survival ultimately depends upon mitigating factors such as the human’s recreational beach use which includes moving vehicles, dog accompaniment, garbage left behind, fishing gear litter, habitat loss due to erosion or construction in the area that affects any rise in sea level which will cause their nest to be over-washed. Despite the perils of beach nesting, instinctually, they still do. Their most popular choice of breeding grounds is along Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina coasts, and they commonly nest on high, sandy sites such as dunes, but also in low, flat sandy areas with good cover. Adult Oystercatchers resemble folk dance cloggers as they use their little feet to scrape out four or five 8” across and 2 1/2” deep shallow depressions in the sand, then they choose the one that suits their needs and line it with shells and other beach materials. The adult female lays 2 to 4 brown speckled, gray eggs in the nest where incubation takes 24 to 28 days. After hatching, the babies chill in the nest for a day, but by day two they are on their feet and following Mom & Dad all over the beach while their parents feed them on the go. The youngsters watch their parents closely so they will know within weeks how to jab their bill into the shell of a mollusk to snip the strong muscle that clamps the shell closed, however their beak will not be strong enough to successfully complete that task for at least two months. This behavior is also a risky maneuver because a mussel or oyster can clamp down on the oystercatcher’s bill and hold the bird in place until the tide comes in. That is not good and can be fatal for the bird. The young ones are dependent upon their parents for up to six months, and it will be three years before they are sexually mature enough to breed. The American Oystercatcher is a shy bird that is sensitive to human disturbance and habitat degradation whether human or nature induced. Although populations of American Oystercatchers are low, (at last count there were only about 11,000 on the east coast of the United States) you will not find it protected on the official endangered species list. They are only listed as a species of concern in several states, especially along the coast, and Audubon identifies them as a climate threatened bird. The longevity record on the books for an oystercatcher is “40 years, one month and two days.” Now that is specific! The reason they can be so specific wraps around the knowledge that the chick was ringed in 1970 and found in the same area where it was ringed during 2010. That was one smart, tough and very lucky little Oystercatcher!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All