Birds – American Oyster Catcher

(Haematopus palliatus)


Length—17 to 21 inches.

Male and Female—Head, neck, and upper breast black; back and wings dark olive brown; greater wing coverts, base of secondaries, sides of lower back, upper tail coverts, base of tail, and all under parts, white. Bill coral red, twice as long as head, compressed, almost like a knife-blade at end, but varying in shape, owing to wear and tear; feet flesh colored; three toes united by a membrane to middle joint.

Range—” Sea-coasts of temperate and tropical America, from New Jersey and Western Mexico to Patagonia; occasional or accidental on the Atlantic coast north to Massachusetts and Grand Menan.” A. O. U.

Children brought up on ” Alice in Wonderland ” might imagine from the name of this bird that oysters are fleet-footed racers along our beaches, overtaken at the end of a breathless chase by the oyster-catcher! On the New Jersey coast and southward, but rarely farther north, we see (if we are cautious, far sighted-stalkers), this curious bird actually prying open shells of bivalves—oysters less commonly, however, than mussels and some others—and digging up fiddler crabs and worms that have buried them-selves in the soft sand, with a bill that is one of the most peculiar among bird tools. Long, stout at the base, but compressed like a knife blade at the end; often as worn and jagged as the opener seen at a Coney Island oyster stand ; sometimes bent sideways from severe wrenches; and bright coral red—this bill belongs in the same class of freaks as the bills of the avocet, skimmer, curlew, P>woodcock, and sea parrot. The oyster-catcher is a shy bird, constantly on the alert, and it is no easy matter to steal upon one close enough to watch it at work. Walking with stately dignity along the lower beach, striking its bill into the sand, often up to the nostrils, suddenly it stops at a glimpse of an intruder, and with shrill notes of alarm springs into the air and is off, not in a short flight, as the confiding little plovers and sandpipers make, soon to return, but away down the beach, often out of sight. Another time you will have learned to rely on a powerful field glass to lessen the distance between you.

But this bird, so quick to move out of harm’s way, is a past master in the art of stealing upon bivalves unawares when they are lying about on the beaches with their shells open, and prying the shells apart until the delectable morsels are cut from them and swallowed. Whoever has had his finger pinched between musseI shells will not be surprised at the crooked, jagged blade the oyster-catcher often carries about. When the bird finds its bill hopelessly caught in a vise, it simply lifts the razor clam, ” racoon oyster,” or whatever its captor may be, knocks it against a rock until the shell is broken, and then feasts. Limpets are pried off rocks as if with a chisel. Again the oyster-catcher wades into the shallows for shrimps and other little marine creatures. No doubt it can swim well too, owing to the partial webbing of its toes; but rapid running and still more rapid flying usually make other accomplishments superfluous. With tough, unsavory flesh to save it from sportsmen’s persecutions, it is a timid bird, nevertheless. It does not live in large flocks; solitary, or with two or three companions only, it dwells far from the haunts of men and apart from those sociable beach birds that are too confiding for self-preservation. A striking, handsome wader on the ground, it is even more attractive as it flies with a few friends, showing its glistening white under parts as it wheels about overhead with great regularity of manoeuvre. Rapid wing beats and frequent sails make its flight strong, yet extremely graceful. A quick, shrill wheep, wheep, wheo, uttered on the wing as well as on the ground, voices the bird’s various emotions. Birds of a migrating flock are said to keep together in lines like a marshalled troop, swayed by one mind, just as they appear to be when wheeling over the beach on pleasure bent.

Like gulls, terns, skimmers, and other beach nesters, the oyster-catchers allow the sun-baked sand to do the greater part of the incubating, the parents confining themselves only at night or during storms on three or four pale buff eggs spotted and blotched with chocolate, and laid directly on the shingle, in a depression. Mr. Walter Hoxie, in the ” Ornithologist and Oologist,” tells of seeing a pair of these birds whose nest had been discovered, but not disturbed, take the eggs about one hundred yards farther along the beach and deposit them safely, one by one, in a new nest which he watched them prepare. Fluffy chicks, that run as soon as hatched, will squat and remain motionless like plovers, secure in their plumage’s perfect imitation of their surroundings.