An unmistakable pied wader, the Oystercatcher occurs around the entire UK coastline and further inland in the north.
The Oystercatcher is a conspicuous, crow-sized wader with very colourful features. Continue reading to learn more about their appearance.
Oystercatchers are heavyset birds with longish, robust legs and a long straight bill. Their all-black upper parts and pure white underparts are easily recognised, even at a distance. They develop a prominent white collar during the non-breeding season.
They have bright red eyes surrounded by a prominent red ring. Their bill is bright red becoming orange at the tip, and their long, heavily built legs are pink. Oystercatchers are equally striking in flight when their broad white wing bars are visible. The back is white when seen in flight, and their white tail has a black tip.
Close up of an Oystercatcher
Females are difficult to distinguish from males, although they are slightly larger on average. They also have longer bills which may be used to access different food sources.
Juvenile Oystercatchers resemble adults but can be distinguished by generally duller plumage. Their legs are greyish, and they lack the bright red eye and eyering of the adults. Their bill tip is dark rather than orange.
Oystercatchers are large, heavily built waders about the size of a crow. They have fairly long, robust legs and large bills.
Adult Oystercatchers have a body length of 40 to 47 centimetres.
The resident Oystercatcher subspecies in the UK is relatively heavy at 425 to 820 grams.
Oystercatchers have broad wings that taper to a point. Most have a wingspan of 76 to 86 centimetres.
Oystercatcher walking out of sea, on the beach
The Oystercatcher call is a quintessential sound of coastal areas.
The typical Oystercatcher call is a high-pitched ‘peep’ or ‘pi-eep’. They may also produce a sharp ‘wit’ note when alarmed. These birds call from the ground or in flight, either singly or during piping displays of groups of birds.
These birds feed on a range of creatures that live in mud, sand, and between the rocks. Continue reading to learn more about Oystercatcher feeding and foraging.
Despite their common name, oysters are not the most important component of the Oystercatcher's diet. Mussels and cockles are favoured, although these birds eat various marine, aquatic, and terrestrial invertebrates.
Other regular prey items include:
These birds access their prey in a variety of ways. They may stab, hammer, or prize shells open with their large, sturdy bills. Interestingly, differences in food preferences between juveniles, adult males, and adult females may limit competition for prey.
Oystercatcher chicks are nidifugous, meaning they leave their nest soon after hatching. Unlike other baby waders, the chicks do not feed themselves and rely on their parents for several weeks. Generally, young birds eat the same small shellfish and marine invertebrates as their parents.
Oystercatcher foraging for food along the shoreline
Oystercatchers are wading birds that spend their time near the shore. Continue reading to learn where you can spot them in the United Kingdom.
Oystercatchers are most at home in estuaries and along sandy shores, although increasing numbers are venturing inland. Look out for them in the following habitats.
Oystercatchers occur around virtually the entire coastline of the UK and Ireland. They also venture far inland, particularly in Scotland and Northern England. Elsewhere the species is widespread in parts of Asia and visits Africa’s west and east coasts.
Oystercatchers in the UK are of the subspecies H. o. ostralegus, which occurs from Iceland to western Russia and across to northern France.
Sandy beaches are a common habitat for Oystercatchers
Oystercatchers have just three forward-facing toes, which helps to spread their weight to stop them sinking in the mud.
Oystercatchers are waders that spend their lives foraging along the coast and freshwater bodies. These birds live on the ground and never perch in trees or other vegetation. They often walk in shallow water, and although they can swim well, this behaviour is rarely seen.
Oystercatchers are not rare in the UK, and they can be seen virtually anywhere along the coast. Over 90,000 Oystercatchers are estimated to live and nest in the UK, and their numbers increase by about 50% in the winter when birds arrive from Iceland and Northern Europe.
Birdwatchers can see Oystercatchers practically anywhere on the UK coastline and further inland in northern England and Scotland. The larger estuaries and sandy beaches hold good numbers in the winter.
Oystercatchers roost communally, so are usually found in areas that provide safe height-tide roosts as well as good feeding areas.
Oystercatchers make a remarkable spectacle flying through the air in flocks in formations with their white wing bars flashing. Their flight is direct with quick wingbeats, somewhat recalling a duck. RSPB reserves on estuaries are a good place to see oystercatchers. Look out for them along mudflats, or along the warm shingle in summer.
Oystercatcher in flight
Oystercatchers are long-lived birds with few predators. Their greatest threat came from competition with us, although they are a protected species today.
Oystercatchers have a relatively long average lifespan of about 12 years. The oldest known individual lived an impressive 40 years.
Healthy Adult Oystercatchers have few predators, although they can fall prey to Peregrine Falcons. Their eggs and chicks are easier meals and may be vulnerable to the following mammal and bird species:
Oystercatchers are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981.
Oystercatchers are not endangered, although they are declining globally. The IUCN classifies them as ‘Near Threatened’, and they have an amber conservation status in the United Kingdom.
A pair of Oystercatchers searching for prey on the beach
Oystercatchers are breeding residents in the United Kingdom. Continue reading to learn about their breeding and nesting habits.
Oystercatchers nest on the ground, either out in the open or between low vegetation. Most nests are located above the high tide mark on beaches, but they are increasingly nesting along stony rivers, gravel pit banks, and even in odd places like rooftops.
Their nest is a simple scrape, often lined with shells, rock flakes or other debris like animal droppings. Oystercatcher pairs maintain nesting territories that are separate from other pairs, and they usually return to nest in the same territory year after year.
Oystercatchers lay three (2-5) eggs per clutch. Each egg is superbly camouflaged with a yellowish ground colour and dark speckles. Their eggs measure about 56 millimetres long and 40 millimetres wide.
Oystercatchers probably mate for life, and successful pairs can last for 20 years. However, males will take on a second partner at times.
Close up of an Oystercatcher nest with three eggs inside
Adult Eurasian Oystercatcher with two young chicks
Oystercatchers can be rather aggressive towards each other when feeding and nesting. Dominant individuals may steal food from lower-ranking birds, and breeding pairs aggressively defend their nesting territory.
Oystercatcher feeding times are dictated by the tides rather than the time of day, as high water submerges their feeding grounds. They will forage at low tide by day or night and roost above the high water mark at high tide, often communally in the winter.
A pair of Oystercatchers fighting
Oystercatchers are partial migrants, although the UK population is present throughout the year. Breeding populations from Northern Europe join our birds in the winter to enjoy the milder weather, and those that breed inland return to the coast in the non-breeding season.
Elsewhere, the various subspecies migrate longer distances. Some even overwinter as far south as Central Africa after nesting in Central Asia.
Oystercatchers are native to the United Kingdom. More and more of these birds are moving inland to breed, although they have always been present around the coast.
A large flock of Oystercatchers
Despite their common name, Oystercatchers rarely eat oysters in the UK. Other bivalve molluscs, such as mussels and cockles, are their major prey.
Eurasian oystercatcher, Common Pied oystercatcher, Palaearctic oystercatcher, Oyster catcher
40cm to 47cm
76cm to 86cm
425g to 820g
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