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African black oystercatcher Haematopus moquini

Fast facts

  • Conservation status: Near Threatened
  • Mates for life: some pairs have remained together for 20 years
  • Its strong, dagger-like beak enables it to feed on mussels, limpets and worms

Oystercatchers are shorebirds that live on temperate and tropical coasts around the world, occurring on every continent except Antarctica. There are 12 known species worldwide. They are black to black-brown, or black and white in colour, depending on the species. Oystercatchers have strong, dagger-like beaks that enable them to feed on mussels, limpets and worms. They rarely eat oysters!

The African black oystercatcher

The African black oystercatcher is found only on the coasts of South Africa and Namibia. Birds that live on rocky shores feed mainly on mussels and limpets, while those found on sandy shores eat sand mussels. Estuarine oystercatchers typically eat cockles and pencil-bait.

Mates for life

The African black oystercatcher mates for life and some pairs have been known to live together for up to 20 years. These birds start breeding at three to four years of age.

They breed once a year at the onset of summer and lay one to three (usually two) greenish stony-coloured eggs in a simple nest on sand or rocks, which is often no more than a scrape in the ground.

Both parents incubate the eggs, which hatch after about 32 days.

During the breeding period the parents, eggs and chicks are vulnerable to natural predators such as foxes, jackals, genets, snakes and gulls. Humans, their vehicles and dogs pose additional threats because oystercatchers breed at the height of the summer holiday season, when human use of the coast is at its peak.

Support the Oystercatcher Conservation Programme

In 1998, the African black oystercatcher was considered a threatened species and, to protect it from further decline, the Oystercatcher Conservation Programme was initiated by the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town.

Due to the efforts of this programme and increased food availability, thanks to the rapid spread of the alien Mediterranean Mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis), the number of African black oystercatchers is now on the rise. It is predicted that a recent ban on beach driving will also have a positive effect on the species’ population growth, mainly by reducing mortality rates of eggs and chicks. Further good news is that the species is now listed as Near Threatened and soon to be Least Concern.

Oystercatchers in the Aquarium

An African Black Oystercatcher chick (Haematopus moquini) hatched in the River Meander exhibit in 2003. As far as we know, this is the first time this endangered species has successfully bred in captivity.