Life on the Rocks
Published: 09/04/2012  Updated: 08/15/2019
The Black Oystercatcher can be found on the shorelines of western North America.
The Black Oystercatcher can be found on the shorelines of western North America.  Photo by Gary Hayes

The Black Oystercatcher nests in rocky depressions near the high tide line and feeds on limpets, mussels and crabs. They don't, however, eat oysters.

Among the many colorful Pacific coast shorebirds, the Black Oystercatcher is one of the few representatives of the oystercatcher family found on the shorelines of western North America. Similar in size and appearance to a large crow, the Black Oystercatcher has a distinctive, long red-orange bill, pink legs, and bright yellow eyes ringed with red. Although sometimes difficult to spot against the wet rocks of their nesting areas, you'll know they are in the area by their loud, whistle-like calls.

They forage along intertidal areas, their long hard beaks serving as a device to dislodge food and pry open shells. They feed mostly on marine invertebrates like limpets, mussels and crabs. They don't, however, eat oysters. Instead, they prefer crustaceans and mollusks with shells that crack more easily when dropped on the rocks.

Black Oystercatchers are monogamous, long-lived, and frequently return to nest at the same site to lay only two or three eggs per year. They choose rocky depressions near the high tide line for their nests, collecting pebbles and bits of shell to toss into their bowl-shaped nesting sites. These sometimes raucous birds are really rather shy and especially vulnerable to disturbances while nesting. They are easily spooked and may even abandon the nest if startled.

In a recent report, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Black Oystercatcher as a species of high conservation concern. If you are out exploring the rocky intertidal zones from early spring through summer, you can help these birds raise their young successfully by not getting too close. All offshore rocks are protected as part of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge and no climbing is allowed. Avoid letting dogs run free in nesting areas. If you see a pair feeding at low tide, consider yourself lucky, and observe for as long as you like, but it's best to allow the birds some quiet consideration.
Life on the Rocks