The Black Oystercatcher Needs a New Name

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy watching and listening to Black Oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani) but I hate their name. Yes, they are black in color but they don’t eat oysters, and oysters don’t need catching. This misnomer we can blame on the British (and who doesn’t enjoy blaming the British now and then).

A related species of these iconic coastal birds were named in 1731 by Mark Catesby, an English naturalist touring the southeastern United States. He described them as eating oysters and thus their new name was born, American Oystercatcher.

Previously, other species in England were called Sea Pies in reference to their pied coloration. I find that name quite charming (though sailors of the time might have confused it with a layered meat entree).


If we’re going to name the bird after its food then a more accurate name would be Black Musselpicker. Since they dine primarily on mussels and limpets on intertidal rocks. As you can see in the above photo, Black Oystercatchers blend in fairly well. I usually hear them before I see them. Their loud ringing whistles can even be heard over the sound of crashing waves.

Sadly, they are a species of concern out here on the Oregon Coast. The Portland Audubon Society is working with other groups to monitor the birds, especially during nesting season. According to 2015 data there were 500-600 individuals in Oregon. Unfortunately, I learned recently that none of the Black Oystercatcher hatchlings along the Central Oregon Coast survived this year. No matter the name, I certainly hope they remain for a long, long time.

Categories: Nature Notes

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