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American Oystercatcher

Haematopus palliatus

The American oystercatcher is a large, stocky shorebird with a distinctive long, blade-like, reddish-orange bill. (David Maher/Flickr)
The American oystercatcher is a large, stocky shorebird with a distinctive long, blade-like, reddish-orange bill. (David Maher/Flickr)

The American oystercatcher is a large, stocky shorebird with a distinctive long, blade-like, reddish-orange bill. It lives on beaches, mud flats and exposed oyster bars along the lower Chesapeake Bay.

Appearance:

The American oystercatcher grows up to 19 inches in length and has a large, stocky body. It has a black head, brownish back, white belly and large white patches on its wings, tail and rump. Its eyes are yellow with an orange ring around them. It has a long, straight, reddish-orange bill and pale pink legs.

Habitat:

Beaches, mud flats and exposed oyster bars.

Range:

Visit the lower Chesapeake Bay from spring through autumn, when they are particularly common along the lower Eastern Shore. In winter, they migrate southward.

Feeding:

The American oystercatcher eats oysters and other mollusks, as well as fiddler crabs. It probes through sand and mud to find its prey, thrusting its powerful, blade-like bill between a mollusk’s open shells and stabbing the mollusk’s adductor muscle, then feeding on the meat. It will also use its bill to hammer a mollusk’s shell until it cracks.

Predators:

Oystercatchers are vulnerable to attacks from gulls and sensitive to beach disturbances by humans.

Flight:

These birds can be identified in flight by their broad, white wing stripes and long, bright orange bills.

Voice:

Oystercatchers are very noisy birds; they make a shrill wheep or kleep, as well as loud pic pic pics.

American Oystercatcher courtesy of Pamela C. Rasmussen, Avian Vocalizations Center

Reproduction and Life Cycle:

In spring, oystercatchers will nest on sandy areas along the Bay’s shoreline, particularly around Tangier Sound. Adults make a shallow depression in the sand that the line with crushed shells and other beach debris. Oystercatchers will build as many as five nests to confuse predators. The female lays 2-4 sandy-colored eggs into the nest. Both parents take care of the nest and eggs. Juveniles have a mottled appearance that differs slightly from adults’ plumage.

Other Facts:

  • The oystercatcher was historically known as the sea pie, but was re-named in 1731 when naturalist Mark Catesby observed the bird eating oysters.
  • Although oystercatchers were nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th century for their plumage, populations recovered well in the 20th century.
  • Oystercatchers have been known to drown while trying to feed: tightly rooted mussels sometimes clamps down on an oystercatcher's bill, holding the bird in place until the tide comes in.

Sources and Additional Information:


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