On the Half Shell, Please!
BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN: 978-0-7267-8755-5)
By any measure, the American oystercatcher is one cool bird. All decked out in their stylish black-and-white plumage accentuated by distinctive bright yellow eyes with red rings, long orange-red bills, and stout pink legs, they seem to think they’re just too sexy for their feathers.
Displaying his regal feathering, an American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) feeds on mollusks in the tidal zone.
Oystercatchers work really hard for their living, patrolling tidal flats and pulling live oysters right out of the muck. Then, just as efficiently as the oystermen at your favorite seafood house, they use their heavily serrated beaks like oyster knives to pry open the bivalves and clip the adductor muscles that hold the shells together. This gives them some nice, fresh “oysters on the half shell” to gulp down.
Oystercatchers also seem to delight in being seen as self-sufficient loners, always just hanging out on their own. If birds had tattoos, all the oystercatchers would have a thumbs-up symbol surrounded by the words, “Hey—No Problemo, Man—I Got This!”
From a photographic standpoint, I’ve always found oystercatchers exceedingly wary and difficult to get close to for a tight portrait. Dutch naturalist Coenraad Jacob Temminck described the bird’s temerity this way: “The usual impression that one gets of this large and showy wader is a fleeting glimpse of [it] disappearing in the distance . . . It is one of the shiest and wildest of our shorebirds, ever on the alert to escape from danger.”
From a family perspective, oystercatchers are extremely conscientious parents. First, they take great pains in disguising the location of their speckled eggs by scattering shell fragments and pebbles throughout the nests. Then they continue to feed their young chicks until their beaks grow strong enough to open bivalves on their own—which may take as long as sixty days after hatching. In some instances, oystercatcher adults have given so much time to feeding their young that they forget to eat and starve to death. Now that’s what I call dedication to your kids!
Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the United States, oystercatchers were hunted for both meat and plumage. The uncontrolled slaughter of these birds resulted in precipitous declines in East Coast populations, to the point of extirpation (total elimination) in some coastal areas. After passage of the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act provided federal protection, many oystercatcher populations began to recover nicely.
Today, oystercatchers have successfully repopulated most of their former ranges. While they’re still not plentiful, they can usually be seen on any East Coast and Gulf of Mexico shoreline you visit—anywhere from Maine to Florida and west to Texas.
Text excerpted from book: Bird Brains: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press).
Photo Caption & Credit:© Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS
Author’s bio:For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need.Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.