The American Oyster-catcher

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Birds of America

By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.


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[American Oystercatcher.]

[Haematopus palliatus.]


Our Oyster-catcher has a very extensive range. It spends the winter along the coast from Maryland to the Gulf of Mexico, and being then abundant on the shores of the Floridas, may be considered a constant resident in the United States. At the approach of spring, it removes toward the Middle States, where, as well as in North Carolina, it breeds. It seems scarcer between Long Island and Portland in Maine, where you again see it, and whence it occurs all the way to Labrador, in which country I found that several were breeding in the month of July. Unless in winter, when these birds assemble in parties of twenty-five or thirty individuals, they are seldom met with in greater numbers than from one to four pairs, with their families, which appear to remain with the parent birds until the following spring. It is never found inland, nor even fir up our largest rivers, but is fond of remaining at all times on the sandy beaches and rocky shores of our salt-water bays or marshes. In Labrador, I met with it farther from the open sea than in any other part, yet always near salt-water.

Shy, vigilant, and ever on the alert, the Oyster-catcher walks with a certain appearance of dignity, greatly enhanced by its handsome plumage and remarkable bill. If you stop to watch it, that instant it sounds a loud shrill note of alarm; and should you advance farther towards it, when it has neither nest nor young, off it flies quite out of sight. Few birds, indeed, are more difficult to be approached, and the only means of studying its habits I found to be the use of an excellent telescope, with which I could trace its motions when at the distance of a quarter of a mile, and pursuing its avocations without apprehension of danger. In this manner I have seen it probe the sand to the full length of its bill, knock off limpets from the rocks on the coast of Labrador, using its weapon sideways and insinuating it between the rock and the shell like a chisel, seize the bodies of gaping oysters on what are called in the Southern States and the Floridas "Racoon oyster-beds," and at other times take up a "razor-handle" or solen, and lash it against the sands until the shell was broken and the contents swallowed. Now and then they seem to suck the sea-urchins, driving in the mouth, and introducing their bill by the aperture, without breaking the shell; again they are seen wading up to their bodies from one place to another, seizing on shrimps and other crustacea, and even swimming for a few yards, should this be necessary to enable them to remove from one bank to another without flying. Small crabs, fiddlers, and sea-worms are also caught by it, the shells of which, in a broken state, I have found in its gizzard in greater or less quantity. Frequently, while on wet sea-beaches, it pats the sand, to force out the insects; and in one instance I saw an individual run from the water to the dry sand, with a small flounder in its bill, which it afterwards devoured.

This bird forms no regular nest, but is contented with scratching the dry sand above high-water mark, so as to form a slight hollow, in which it deposits its eggs. On the coast of Labrador, and in the Bay of Fundy, it lays its eggs on the bare rock. When the eggs are on sand, it seldom sits on them during the heat of the sun; but in Labrador, it was found sitting as closely as any other bird. Here, then, is another instance of the extraordinary difference of habit in the same bird under different circumstances. It struck me so much, that had I not procured a specimen in Labrador, and another in our Middle Districts, during the breeding season, and found them on the closest examination to be the same, I should perhaps have thought the birds different. Everywhere, however, I observed that this bird is fond of places covered with broken shells and drifted sea-weeds or grasses, as a place of security for its eggs, and where, in fact, it is no very easy matter to discover them. The eggs are two or three, measure two inches and one-eighth in length, by an inch and a half in breadth, and are of the form of those of a common hen. They are of a pale cream colour, spotted with irregular marks of brownish-black, and others of a paler tint, pretty equally dispersed all over. The birds, even when not sitting on them, are so very anxious about them, that on the least appearance of an enemy, they scream out loudly, and if you approach the nest, fly over and around you, although always at a considerable distance. When you meet with the young, which run as soon as they are hatched, the old birds manifest the greatest anxiety. They run before you, or fly around you, with great swiftness, and emit peculiar notes, which at once induce their little ones to squat among the sand and broken shells, where, on account of their dull greyish colour, it is very difficult to see them unless you pass within a foot or two of them, when they run off emitting a plaintive note, which renders the parents doubly angry. Their shape is now almost round, and the streaks of their back and rump, as well as the curved points of their bills, might induce you to believe them to be any thing but the young of an Oyster-catcher. I have caught some, which I thought were more than a month old, and yet were unable to fly, although full feathered. They appeared weakened by their fatness, and were overtaken by running after them on the sands. There were no parent birds near or in sight of them; yet I much doubt if they procured their own food at this period, and have more reason to believe that, like some other species of birds, they were visited and supplied with food at particular hours of the day or of the night, as is the case with Herons and Ibises, for the Oyster-catcher is scarcely nocturnal.

By the beginning of October these birds return to the south. I saw them at Labrador until the 11th of August, but cannot say at what period they leave that country. When wounded while wading or on the shore, they make for the water, on which they float buoyantly and move with ease.

The flight of the American Oyster-catcher is powerful, swift, elegant at times, and greatly protracted. While they are on wing, their beauties are as effectually displayed as those of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker of our woods, the colours of which are somewhat similar. The transparent white of their wings contrasts with their jetty tips, and is enriched by the coral hue of the bill, while the beautiful white of their lower parts has a very pledging effect. Their loud cries, too, of wheep, wheep, wheeop, which sound in your ears, are quite different from any you have heard; and as they perform their various evolutions, all charming in themselves, you cannot, if unacquainted with the bird, refrain from asking what it is? Now wheeling with wonderful impetuosity, they pass within a hundred yards of you, and suddenly checking their flight return, not low over the waters as before, but high in the air. Again, they form their ranks in a broad front, and again, as if suddenly alarmed by the report of a distant gun, they close pell-mell, and dip towards the sands or the waters. Shoot one at such a moment, and you may expect to kill another; but as this is done, the wary birds, as if suddenly become aware of your intentions, form themselves into a straggling line, and before a minute has elapsed, far beyond reach, and fading on the view, are the remaining Oyster-catchers.

The gullet of this species is capable of being considerably distended. When your finger is introduced into it, it parses with ease into a sort of crop, where the food is apparently prepared before entering the gizzard, which is rather muscular. How this bird disposes of the hard particles of shells, pebbles, and other matters, with which its food is mixed, is beyond my comprehension, and one which I gladly leave for your solution. Their flesh is dark, tough, and unfit for eating, unless in cases of extreme necessity.

The females and young are dark olive-brown above, like the males, but of a browner shade. I have represented a male bird. I have never met with the European Oyster-catcher, Haematopus Ostralegus, in any part of the United States, and, although I cannot of course aver that it does not occur here, I believe that the American or Mantled Oyster-catcher has been confounded with it by WILSON and others. Indeed, the figure given by WILSON resembles that of the European bird, but his description of the female and young almost agrees with the present species, the dimensions also being nearly the same.

At Derniere Island, on the 15th of April, 1837, we met with a flock of Oyster-catchers, fourteen or fifteen in number, flying compactly, and uttering their usual cry of weep, weep. Two were shot down into the water, but one of them that had only been winged, dived so effectually as to escape from us, in spite of the most strenuous exertions of the sailors. At Galveston Island on the 26th of April, they were quite away from the water, and running among the grass, so that they probably had either eggs or young.

An individual obtained at Derniere Island, weighed 1 lb. 12 oz.; its alar extent 37 inches; length to end of tail 19 3/8, to end of claws 19.

HAEMATOPUS PALLIATUS, Temm. Man. d'Orn., vol. ii. p. 532.
MANTLED OYSTER-CATCHER, Haematopus palliatus, Nutt. Man., vol. ii. p. 15.

AMERICAN OYSTER-CATCHER, Haematopus palliatus, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. iii.p. 181; vol. v. p. 580.

Male, 18 1/2, 32 1/2, bill 3 5/8. Female, 21, 36.

Breeds from Texas along the coast to New York, again from Maine to Labrador. Returns south in autumn, spending the winter from Maryland to West Florida. Rather common.

Male in June.

Bill long, slender but strong, straight, deeper than broad at the base, towards the end extremely compressed, terminating in a very thin wedge-shaped point. Upper mandible with the dorsal line at the base straight and slightly sloping, convex beyond the nostrils, then straight and sloping to the point, the ridge broad and flattened as far as the prominence, afterwards extremely narrow, the sides sloping at the base, perpendicular towards the end, the edges rather sharp. Nasal groove basal, long; nostrils basal, in the middle of the groove, linear, direct, placed nearer the margin than the dorsal line, pervious. Lower mandible straight, the dorsal line at the base sloping upwards, at one-third of the length of the bill bulging, then straightish and slightly ascending, the tip narrower than that of the upper mandible, the sides at the base sloping upwards, and having a shallow groove, towards the end becoming perpendicular. The bill differs from that of the Haematopus Ostralegus in being much deeper at the bulging part, much more attenuated towards the point, and proportionally longer.

Head of moderate size, oblong, the forehead rounded. Neck rather long. Body stout, compact, deeper than broad. Wings long. Feet of moderate length, rather stout; tibia bare for a fourth of its length, and, like the slightly compressed tarsus, covered all round with hexagonal scales; toes rather short and fleshy, the hind toe wanting, the second a little shorter than the fourth, the third much longer, all scaly at the base above, scutellate towards the end, flattened and broad beneath, with thick margins, which are covered with prominent thick scales, and connected at the base by short webs, of which the outer is longer; claws small, blunt, rather compressed, that of the middle toe largest, and with a dilated thin inner edge.

Plumage of the head and neck short, blended, of the back compact, and slightly glossed, of the lower parts close and rather blended, the feathers in general incurved, broad, and rounded. Wings long, acute; primaries rather narrow and tapering, the first longest, the second slightly shorter, the rest rapidly graduated; secondaries broad and rounded, the inner much elongated and tapering. Tail short, rounded, of twelve rather broad, rounded feathers.

Bill vermilion, lighter at the base. Edges of eyelids vermilion; iris bright yellow. Feet very pale flesh-colour; claws brownish-black. Head and neck dull black, tinged with bluish-grey; lower eyelid white; the bases of the feathers on the chin white. The general colour of the upper parts is light greyish-brown, tinged with olive, and in certain lights with faint reddish-purple reflections; the edge of the wing, the tips of the secondary coverts, the secondary quills, excepting the inner elongated ones, pure white; as are the breast, sides, under wing-coverts, abdomen, sides of the rump, the upper and the lower tail-coverts. Basal half of the tail white, the rest greyish-brown, like the back.

Length to end of tail 17 1/2, to end of claws 19 1/2; wing from flexure 10 1/2, tail 4 1/4; extent of wings 36; bill along the back 3 5/8; along the edge 3 7/8; bill at the base 9/12, at the deepest part in the middle 8/12; naked part of tibia 1; tarsus 2 1/4; middle toe 1 8/12, its claw (3 1/2)/12. Weight 1 lb. 4 1/2 oz.

The bill varies considerably in length and depth. Individuals vary in length from 17 to 18 inches.

The female is precisely similar to the male.

One of many specimens preserved in spirits, a female, presents the following particulars. The roof of the mouth is flat, with a median groove towards the end; the palate with two longitudinal ridges covered with reversed papillae; the posterior aperture of the nares linear, margined with papillae. The tongue is short, 9 1/2 twelfths long, triangular, tapering to a blunt point, emarginate and papillate at the base, flat above, thin and fleshy. The oesophagus, Fig. 1 [a b c d e], is 8 1/2 inches long, at the upper part 9 twelfths in width, but at the lower part of the neck dilated into an elongated sac or crop, 1 inch 10 twelfths wide; on entering the thorax it contracts to 9 twelfths. The proventriculus, [d e], is 1 1/2 inches in breadth. The stomach, [f g], is oblong, 1 3/4 inches long, 1 inch 2 twelfths in breadth; its muscular coat thick, and disposed into two lateral muscles of moderate strength; the epithelium tough, dark red, with numerous longitudinal rugae. The proventricular glands are cylindrical, 2 twelfths long, forming a continuous belt 1 1/4 inches in breadth. The contents of the stomach are testaceous mollusca, with a few fragments of shells and opercula. The lobes of the liver are very unequal, the right 3 1/4 inches long, the left 2 1/4. The intestine, [g h j k], 58 inches long. It forms the duodenal curve in the usual manner, then runs backward nearly to the extremity, forms several folds or convolutions, then curves up over the stomach, and passes directly to the anus. Its average width is 4 twelfths. The coeca, [l l], are 4 1/4 inches in length, their greatest width 3 twelfths, their distance from the anus 3 inches; the cloaca, [k], globular. This bird was nearly ready to lay eggs. One of them has a diameter of 1 inch, which is the full size of the yolk, the albumen not being added until it has entered the oviduct.

The trachea, which is 5 1/2 inches long, gradually tapers from the width of 4 1/2 twelfths to that of 2 3/4 twelfths. Its rings are unossified, 115 in number. The bronchi are of moderate length, wide, of about 20 very thin cartilaginous half rings. The lateral muscles are strong; the sterno-tracheal slips come off close to the inferior larynx, which has no peculiar muscles.

In a male, the oesophagus is 8 inches long, its greatest width near the lower part of the neck 1 1/2 inches. The stomach is small, being 1 1/2 inches long, and 1 inch in breadth. The intestine measures 4 feet 4 inches in length; its average width 4 twelfths. The coeca 4 inches long.

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