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What is an Oystercatcher?

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  • Written By: Marjorie McAtee
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 04 December 2016
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The oystercatcher is a type of wading bird usually found on freshwater and saltwater shores. Oystercatchers also sometimes venture further inland, often to river valley areas. These birds can flock together in large numbers on shorelines, where they feed on shellfish dug from the mud. There are several species of oystercatcher, populating regions as diverse as North America, Africa, the United Kingdom, and Europe.

Oystercatchers are members of the family Haematopodidae, composed of several shore-dwelling, wading species. These birds usually prefer rocky beaches, rather than sandy ones. The various species of oystercatcher usually winter on shorelines, and may move further inland to breed near rivers, lakes and marshes in the spring and summer. Some members of the species may remain near the shoreline to breed. Experts don't understand why some birds travel inland while others remain near the shore to breed.

Most oystercatcher species have long, narrow, sharp bills believed suited for hunting the shellfish upon which they often feed. Mussels and cockles generally provide the mainstay of the oystercatcher's coastal diet, while the birds may feed mostly on worms once they move inland for the summer. Oystercatchers have also been known to feed upon snails and small crustaceans. The oystercatcher's beak isn't normally strong enough to open a mature shellfish, so it typically feeds by perforating the shell and removing the meat through the hole. The oystercatcher's long beak also allows it to hunt worms more easily when summering inland.

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Because they feed primarily on mussels and cockles, oystercatchers have, in some regions, been considered a danger to the fishing industry. Depletion of natural mussel beds by human activity can put oystercatcher species in danger.

Most species of oystercatcher are fairly large, about 17 inches (43 centimeters) tall. They typically possess long, pinkish legs and an orange or red beak. European oystercatchers typically have black plumage on their heads, backs, and wing-tops, with contrasting white plumage across the breast and undersides of the wings. Other species of oystercatcher, such as those native to the North Island of New Zealand or the west coast of North America, are normally entirely black in color. Male oystercatchers are generally larger than the females of the species, while birds of both genders usually have similar plumage.

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