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The Oystercatcher { Birds of Europe }

Updated on August 9, 2015

Pair of Oystercatchers



The Oystercatcher belongs to the order of birds known as the Charadiiformes {wading birds} and the family Heamatopodidae within that order. they have been assigned the genus name of Heamatopus from the Greek Haima meaning blood+ pous meaning foot. The specific name of ostalegus derives from the Latin Ostrea indicating oyster+legare indicating to lift.

In the UK they are placed on the Amber list of conservation concern {declines of between 25-50% over the last forty years or so}. they are classed as a migrant/resident breeder and passage winter visitor. the latest Wetland Bird Survey reveals further declines have occurred over the last ten years.The estimated population number in the UK is around 110,000 pairs in summer. In Ireland it is also Amber listed has Ireland hosts internationally important numbers of Oystercatcher's in winter with the largest numbers occurring between September and March. { Source BTO}

In Europe there are no current concerns and the bird is regarded as being secure,with a summer population size estimated between 293,000 and 425,000 pairs. The population numbers vary from country to country there follows a few examples. Belgium,1,500-2,100 pairs, Denmark,10,000,14,500 pairs, France,1,000-1,200 pairs Iceland 10,000-20,000 pairs Netherlands 80,000-130,000 pairs,Norway 30,000-50,000 pairs. Sweden 12,000-18,000 pairs Spain 46-58 breeding pairs and Ukraine 650-880 breeding pairs. { Source Birdlife}

They breed on the coasts of Europe and Northern Asia and winter south to South Africa and southern Asia.

The Gaelic name for the bird is Gille-Brghde the Welsh Pioden y Mr and the Irish Roilleach.

A Species of American Oystercatcher, H.palliatus

originally posted on Flickr {Birds of New Jersey} uploaded by Snowmanradio to Commons.
originally posted on Flickr {Birds of New Jersey} uploaded by Snowmanradio to Commons. | Source

What are wading birds?

Here in the UK and across Europe this group of birds is known as wading birds and in North America,Shore birds,some live far from shore and several rarely wade.

They are mostly long legged,but vary from short billed to very long billed. The bills may be straight,curved down or curved upwards. Some are among the world's longest-distance migrants. This group includes the Families, Heamtopodidae, Recurvirostridae, Glareolidae, Charadriidae and the Scolopaiidae. The largest groups includes the Avocet,Stilts, Plovers,Pratmcoles,Sandpipers,Godwits Curlews and Oystercatcher's. many wading birds form large flocks and display some remarkable aerial manouvres which make a spectacular sight.

Here we review the Eurasian Oystercatcher H.ostralegus, and as always commence with a description of the species under review.

Oystercatcher and habitat

Crossley's  ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley
Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley | Source

Description of the Eurasian Oystercatcher

At a glance the Oystercatcher is a most striking bird with a red/orange bill and its short pale pink legs,and red eye. they have a bulky,striking black and white body.

The bill is two and a half to three inches long {6.7.5 cm}, flattened laterally,ending in a narrow vertical chisel edge of a red/orange colour darker towards the tip. The iris is crimson red. The eye lid is of an orange colour. The head,neck,upper breast,shoulders,smaller wing coverts,inner tertiaries and terminal half of the tail are black.

The back,upper tail coverts,the basal half of the tail,greater wing coverts, inner secondaries and outer tertiaries,under sides of wings,rest of under parts,and a small tick under the eye are white. The legs and feet are flesh coloured tinged with pink or red,the claws are black,the three toes all directed forward.

Both sexes are alike. During the winter,and for about half the year there is a white patch on the throat and the legs are a duller colour. In flight it shows a white wing stripe, a black tail and a white rump that extends to a V shape between the wings.

The birds sometimes roost on one leg with the head tucked under the wing.

Oystercatcher in flight

Taken Isle of Skye Scotland.
Taken Isle of Skye Scotland. | Source

General and historical observations.

The Oystercatcher was once referred to as the 'Sea-pie' and 'Sea-pyot' by country people in England and both allude to its pied colouring.

Most UK birds spend the winter on the coast where they are joined on the east coast by birds from Norway. large numbers occur on major estuaries,such as Morecambe Bay in my native county of Lancashire {N.W.England}. In the Uk there is an estimated 110,000 breeding pairs and up to 340,000 over wintering birds {ie, from October to March}. Sadly the latest Wetland Bird Survey {UK} shows a decline in numbers over the last ten years or so,along with other wading species.

It is a remarkably sad fact that in 1974 permission was given by the then Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries { Now DEFRA} for thousands of these birds to be culled on the west coast as they were seen as a threat to the livelihood of local fishermen.

Why the bird has been given the name of Oystercatcher is unclear for there is little evidence that they are capable of opening a fully developed Oyster,and their main diet consists of cockles and mussels and earthworms when feeding their young.

Butler 'British Birds with their Nest and Eggs' 1898,makes the following observations. " I have watched a Sea-pie knocking a small green crab to pieces and picking out the meat. They frequent sand and shingle banks for safety at high water and pas their time among the sand-hoppers feeding at low water on mussels scalps and tangled covered rocks..Everyone know how easy it is to get an unsuspecting limpet from a rock,and how difficult it is when the creature has taken alarm and clamped itself to the stone."

" The Oystercatcher,knows this too,and according to the author of 'Birds of Western Scotland' only makes an attempt when it can see 'day light' between the rock and shell,sufficient to admit suddenly the pound of the powerful chisel bill, I have never been near enough to observe this."

Coward ' Birds of Cheshire ' {NW England} 1900, relates that the Oyster catcher still breeds on the Welsh side of the Dee Estuary and on May 13th 1894 " We saw a flock of about 200 birds on the Cheshire shore between Heswall and Thurstaston"


Birds of Europe John Gould 1837 courtesy of the BHL
Birds of Europe John Gould 1837 courtesy of the BHL

Captivity myths and legends.

Oystercatchers tend to run around in an easy manner,but, this is only so when they are alarmed. They are not so entirely devoted to the sea as its name may suggest, for it is seen frequently on the banks of large and small rivers and lakes, many miles inland. When the birds are in these inland localities they feed on earthworms,which they also feed to their young,an activity which is unusual among wading birds.

According to Pennant, the Finn's hold the bird in the utmost detestation,for they suppose that when they are engaged in seal-chasing,it gives timely notice to the seals of the approach of the hunters,and by that means frightens away their quarry.

Conversely it would seem the country people of north eastern Scotland regarded it very differently,and considered its early appearance inland as a sure sign of a mild and productive season to come.

Captivity---Butler concludes that the Oystercatcher would probably be an attractive and useful inhabitant of a walled garden. For the table it is useless and ought never to be shot,except by anyone who wants a specimen. Morris declares they are tameable birds that readily associate with domestic poultry.

Swaysland remarks that the Oystercatcher is very easy domesticated. " Some years ago a flock was kept in the grounds of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton,where they attracted a great deal of attention" The author also recollects an Oystercatcher in the west of England that lived for many years in a fowl yard. " It was quite tame and associated with the fowls and pigeons in a most friendly way.

Oystercatcher far inland.

This bird was feeding among the sheep on the high pastures in my native Lancashire
This bird was feeding among the sheep on the high pastures in my native Lancashire | Source

Egg of the Oysteercatcher


Nest and Egg

Taken at Dornoch Scotland originally appeared on Flickr.
Taken at Dornoch Scotland originally appeared on Flickr. | Source

Nest and eggs of the Oyster catcher.

Seebohm 1885,makes these observations in his book 'A History of British Birds' " A peculiarity attached to the identification of the Oystercatcher is the number of nests it forms then deserts,ere,making one to its liking. Frequently empty nests are found near the one that is tenanted,as though the bird has tried several times before it is suited"

The Oystercatcher breeds on almost all the UK coasts,and over the last fifty years or so have started breeding inland. The Oystercatcher's that nest by the sea shore are very sociable by nature and even after pairing many couples will proceed to the same locality to breed together. When nesting by the sea shore the 'nest' is just a depression in the shingle just above the high tide mark or on a ledge of rock a few feet higher, or even an hollow in the turf on the grassy top of an islet.

On a rock a little seaweed is used,however,whether the bird brings the seaweed to the nest deliberately is debatable it is more likely to pick a spot where the seaweed is already there.

In the 'nest' the female will deposit 2-3 eggs of a clay-buff colour,spotted and marked with grey brown and black. The eggs are incubated for a period of between 24-27 days and the task is undertaken by both parents.The male will keep watch when the hen is sitting and gives notice of any impending danger by a shrill whistling call. The hen if need be quits the nest and after a detour will join her mate and they will try to decoy the intruder away from the nest by making loud cries and flying very close to the intruder. They are bold and tenacious when defending the nest. Should the enemy be a bird such as a crow or gull the parents will attack them and drive them away using their bills as effective deterrents.

When the chicks peck their way into the world they emerge covered with a grey down tipped with buff,and mottled on the head and back with black. Several irregular black lines down the crown and the back, the under parts are white.

The young chicks can run about almost immediate;y after they have hatched and are very active. A peculiar habit of these chicks has been observed,hiding their heads in the first hole they come to " As if thinking like an Ostrich, that if they cannot see you,you cannot see them".

Parent with chick

Taken at Dornoch Scotland  originally appeared on Flickr uploaded to Commons by Snowmanradio
Taken at Dornoch Scotland originally appeared on Flickr uploaded to Commons by Snowmanradio | Source

Young birds

Young birds have rusty tinge in the black of the back,and the feathers are tipped obscurely with greyish-white. The legs are of a dirty grey flesh colour. The bill is dingy yellow as opposed to the orange red colour of the adult. The bill of the juvenile is only two and a half inches,or shorter , in length.

In their first years plumage it is a yellowish brown tinged with orange, the back and wing coverts margined with brown and the white is not so pure. The feet are greenish white tinged with pink. It is not until their second year that the white gorget is put on.

Adult and juvenile

originally appeared on Flickr uploaded to Commons by Snowmanradio Taken in Finland
originally appeared on Flickr uploaded to Commons by Snowmanradio Taken in Finland | Source


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, How right you are about climate change and how it will affect our feathered friends. Thank you for reading ,glad you liked it. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      The oystercatcher is a very fine bird, but it is not as common as it should be. Between global warming and human interference, many birds may go to the wayside if we aren't careful. I enjoyed this historical read.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hello Devika they sure are beautiful and fascinating birds. I truly appreciate you watching out for my hubs,it is a great encouragement, and thank you for taking up your time to read and comment. Thank you for your vote up and interesting. Best wishes to you.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Beautiful! Unique birds and with great characteristics. I always watch out for a new hub from you so worth my time thank you. Voted up and interesting.


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