Oyster-Catcher - Encyclopedia

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OYSTER-CATCHER, a bird's name which does not seem to occur in books until 1731, when M. Catesby (Nat. Hist. Carolina, i. p. 85) used it for a species which he observed to be abundant on the oyster-banks left bare at low water in the rivers of Carolina, and believed to feed principally upon those molluscs. In 1776 T. Pennant applied the name to the allied British species, which he and for nearly two hundred years many other English writers had called the "Sea-Pie." The change, in spite of the misnomer - for, whatever may be the case elsewhere, in England the bird does not feed upon oysters - met with general approval, and the new name has, at least in books, almost wholly replaced what seems to have been the older one.' The Oyster-catcher of Europe is the Haematopus 2 ostralegus or Linnaeus, belonging to the group now called Limicolae, and is generally included in the family Charadriidae; though some writers have placed it in one of its own, Haematopodidae, chiefly on account of its peculiar bill - a long thin wedge, ending in a vertical edge. Its feet also are much more fleshy than are generally seen in the Plover family. In its strongly-contrasted plumage of black and white, with a coral-coloured bill, the Oyster-catcher is one of the most conspicuous birds of the European coasts, and in many parts is still very common. It is nearly always seen paired, though the pairs collect in prodigious flocks; and, when these are broken up, its shrill but musical cry of "tu-lup," "tu-lup," somewhat pettishly repeated, helps to draw attention to it. Its wariness, however, is very marvellous, and even at the breeding-season, when most birds throw off their shyness, it is not easily approached within ordinary gunshot distance. The hen-bird commonly lays three clay-coloured eggs, blotched with black, in a very slight hollow on the ground not far from the sea. As incubation goes on the hollow is somewhat deepened, and perhaps some haulm is added to its edge, so that at last a very fair nest is the result. The young, as in all Limicolae, are at first clothed in down, so mottled in colour as closely to resemble the shingle to which, if they be not hatched upon it, they are almost immediately taken by their parents, and there, on the slightest alarm, they, squat close to elude observation. This species occurs on the British coasts (very seldom straying inland) all the year round; but there is some reason to think that those we have in winter are natives of more northern latitudes, while our homebred birds leave us. It ranges from Iceland to the shores of the Red Sea, and lives chiefly on marine worms, crustacea and such molluscs as it is able to obtain. It is commonly supposed to be capable of prizing limpets from their rock, and of opening the shells of mussels; but, though undoubtedly it feeds on both, further evidence as to the way in which it procures them is desirable. J. E. Harting informed the present writer that the bird seems to lay its head sideways on the ground, and then, grasping the limpet's shell close to the rock between the mandibles, use them as scissor-blades to cut off the mollusc from its sticking-place. The Oyster-catcher is not highly esteemed as a bird for the table.

Differing from this species in the possession of a longer bill, in having much less white on its back, in the paler colour of its mantle, and in a few other points, is the ordinary American species, with at least three races, Haematopus palliates. Except that its call-note, judging from description, is unlike that of the European bird, the habits of the two seem to be perfectly similar; and the same may be said indeed of all the other species. The Falkland Islands are frequented by a third, H. leucopus, very similar to the first, but with a black wing-lining and paler legs, while the Australian Region possesses a fourth, H. longirostris, with a very long bill as its name intimates, and no white on its 1 It seems, however, very possible, judging from its equivalents in other European languages, such as the Frisian Oestervisscher, the German Augsterman, Austernfischer, and the like, that the name "Oyster-catcher" may have been not a colonial invention but indigenous to the mother-country, though it had not found its way into print before. The French Huitrier, however, appears to be a word coined by Brisson. "Sea-Pie" has its analogues in the French Pie-de-Mer, the German Meerelster, Seeelster, and so forth.

2 Whether it be the Haematopus, whose name is found in some editions of Pliny (lib. x. cap. 47) is at best doubtful. Other editions have Himantopus; but Hardouin prefers the former reading. Both words have passed into modern ornithology, the latter as the generic name of the STILT; and some writers have blended the two in the strange and impossible compound Haemantopus. primaries. China, Japan and possibly eastern Asia in general have an Oyster-catcher which seems to be intermediate between the last and the first. This has received the name of H. osculans; but doubts have been expressed as to its deserving specific recognition. Then we have a group of species in which the plumage is wholly or almost wholly black, and among them only do we find birds that fulfil the implication of the scientific name of the genus by having feet that may be called blood-red. H. niger, which frequents both coasts of the northern Pacific, has, it is true, yellow legs, but towards the extremity of South America its place is taken by H. ater, in which they are bright red, and this bird is further remarkable for its laterally compressed and much upturned bill. The South African H. capensis has also scarlet legs; but in the otherwise very similar bird of Australia and New Zealand, H. unicolor, these members are of a pale brick-colour. (A. N.)

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