American Oystercatchers (Haematopus palliatus)

Adult Oystercatcher. Photo Credit: Phil Wilkinson

American Oystercatchers are year round residents in our state. South Carolina also provides habitat for the largest wintering population along the east coast. 

Natural History

The American oystercatcher is a large shorebird found in coastal habitats that has a striking orange bill specialized for prying open bivalves (oysters, mussels and clams). Little is known about migratory behavior except that oystercatchers gather in large flocks in southern states during winter. On the Atlantic coast of the United States, breeding occurs from Massachusetts to Florida but can be seen infrequently as far north as Nova Scotia. Oystercatchers nest on beachfronts, shell mounds, and marsh or spoil islands. They mate for life and raise only one brood per season. In South Carolina, nesting begins early April and ends in late June. Pairs are very defensive during the nesting season. Territorial displays, such as a breeding pair running side-by-side while lowering their heads and calling loudly, are frequently seen near nesting sites. The nest is a shallow depression on a sandy or shelly beach with little or low vegetation. Clutch size is 2 - 4 and eggs are gray with dark spotting. Chicks are dependent on adults for food for at least two months. Oystercatchers are able to fly at approximately 35 days. They are believed to begin breeding at 3 - 4 years.


The eastern race of the American oystercatcher has been identified as an “extremely high priority” shorebird by the Working Group for the Southeastern Coastal Plain as part of the United States Shorebird Conservation Plan. This designation is based on estimated numbers of American oystercatchers totaling less than 10,000 and the decline of suitable beach nesting habitat. Additionally, the number of breeding pairs from Virginia to Florida is declining and studies have documented low reproductive success. Nesting failures result from avian and mammalian depredation of eggs, over-wash of nests by high tides and boat wakes and nest abandonment resulting from human disturbance at nesting sites. Censuses in the winter of 1988 and 1989 by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) and Coastal Carolina University in the Cape Romain Region of South Carolina reported a peak of 2,401 birds. Results of a SCDNR survey in 2001 suggest a 21% decline in oystercatchers in the Cape Romain Region over 14 years.

Adult with bright orange bill and eye ringSCDNR Biologists measuring wing lengthCryptic young chick resting on wrackColor banded chick. Photo Credits: Felicia Sanders

Project Biologist: Felicia Sanders