With a very specific distribution pattern in the United States, an American Oystercatcher is a special sighting. Year round, these large shore birds can be found in North America primarily from New England to northern Florida. If you want to spot an American Oystercatchers in Florida, the best time would be during winter. Like many of Florida’s seasonal residents, American Oystercatchers escape the cold season and make their homes on Florida’s warm beaches.
If you catch them at the right time of year and in the right place, spotting an American Oystercatcher can actually be pretty easy. A typical American Oystercatcher is between 17 and 21 inches long with long pink legs and a long orange bill. Their black and white plumage also helps them to stand out. If you’re looking for an American Oystercatcher, make sure you look for a black feathers on the head and back and white feathers on the breast and belly. There is also a stripe of white feathers on its wings, which you can spot when the bird takes flight.
The best place to find an American Oystercatcher is on rocky or sandy beaches, mudflats, or on salt marshes. Naturally, this makes Florida a very attractive home for American Oystercatchers with the thousands of miles of coastline and beaches. This environment is essential for American Oystercatchers because their diet consists primarily of bivalve mollusks, including mussels and of course oysters. They also feast on other sea creatures such as jellyfish, crabs, barnacles, and starfish.
The American Oystercatchers long beak allows them to pry open the shells of mollusks and probe the mud of shallow waters for food. These birds have a couple different methods of getting to the inside of their shelled prey. If an American Oystercatcher comes across a mussel or oyster with a slightly open shell, it will stick its bill into the shell and cut the muscles holding the meaty treat inside in order to extract it. If the shell doesn’t already have an access point, the American Oystercatcher will just slam its beak onto the shell until it breaks open.
Before baby American Oystercatchers can be born, mom and dad prepare a nest to raise their new family in. The adult American Oystercatchers will use their feet to dig out a shallow hole in the sand that is about 2.5 inches deep and 8 inches wide, usually on an elevated area such as a dune or sandy spots that are well covered. American Oystercatchers prefer to nest at a reasonable distance from the high tide line. If good nesting spots are in short supply, the birds will have to take the risk and make their nests closer to the high tide line, sometimes resulting in nests being flooded and washed away. The parents will dig several holes like this before ultimately deciding on the one that they like best. The chosen nest will then be lined pebbles, shells, and the like in order to prepare for the chicks. American Oystercatchers sometimes mate for life and they will also band together in areas of dense population to protect their nests and care for their young. Although they don’t typically breed in colonies, a group of three might be formed, usually with one male and two females caring for one or two nests in their immediate area. The mother will lay a clutch of one to four eggs and the eggs are incubated by both parents. Once the little American Oysters are born, both parents will take turns protecting and feeding the hatchlings.
Today, the American Oystercatcher is listed as a species of least concern through the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Currently their range and their numbers are stable, and some parts of the United States have seen increases in American Oystercatchers. As a result, they are not protected under the Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, the American Oystercatcher has had a rough past. Heavy amounts of hunting and egg collecting led to the extinction of American Oystercatchers in the northeast U.S. Their range has since extended once more toward that area after the American Oystercatcher received protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Although American Oystercatchers are quite stable today throughout most of their range in the U.S., some states have marked them as a species of concern because of declining numbers. American Oystercatchers will continue to contend with building and recreational developments occurring on their nesting beaches.
One of the most popular myths surrounding the Oystercatcher can be traced back to Scotland. The Oystercatcher is associated with the Bride and Angus legend. In this Scottish legend, Bride is a beautiful princess who is being held captive by Queen Beira and she is treated cruelly until Angus, Beira’s own son, comes to her rescue after seeing the captive princess in a dream. When Angus and Bride are united, the Fairy Queen appears and transforms Bride from her dirty rags to the graceful and beautiful princess she was always meant to be. The first forest bird to sing for Bride was the linnet and the Fairy Queen declared that the linnet would hereafter be known as the Bird of Bride. On the seashore, the first bird to sing for Bride was the oystercatcher and the Fairy Queen dubbed this bird as the Page of Bride. The Oystercatcher is also a symbol of St. Bride, who is often depicted carrying an Oystercatcher in each hand.
According to Christian tradition, an Oystercatcher once hid Jesus under seaweed when he was being chased by his enemies. In order to thank the Oystercatcher for its protection, Jesus marked the bird with its black and white plumage to resemble the cross. Stemming from this legend, the Oystercatcher has come to symbolize protection and using concealment as a means of protection, just like the Oystercatcher concealed and protected Jesus with seaweed. If an Oystercatcher appears in your dreams, you might want to consider what you are hiding from the world or even hiding from yourself and evaluate whether or not it is time for these hidden aspects of yourself to be revealed.
American Oystercatchers are a staple on the Florida shoreline during the winter. Serious and casual birdwatchers alike can have a great time observing these birds while taking a relaxing stroll along the beach. If you’re just starting out and want to test your bird watching skills with some shorebirds, the American Oystercatcher is your best bet. Their large build and distinct pattern ensure that they stand out among the crowd.