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African black oystercatcher

African black oystercatcher
Swarttobie

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Haematopodidae
Genus: Haematopus
Haematopus moquini Bonaparte 1856

Take a bow, South Africa. The African black oystercatcher is one of your conservation success stories.

Actually, these birds - which live only on the coasts of South Africa and Namibia, and nowhere else in the world - don’t eat a lot of oysters: on rocky shores they feed mainly on mussels and limpets, on sandy shores they prefer sand mussels, and in estuaries they hunt for cockles and pencil-bait.

Despite all this yumminess, they’re quite coy when it comes to breeding. The problem isn’t so much the sex: it’s what happens afterwards.

They pair up at about three or four years of age, and they mate for life: some pairs have been observed nesting together at the same site for more than 20 years.

At the beginning of summer, each pair produces an average of only two eggs, which they tend in simple nests on the rocks or scraped into the sand just above the high water mark. Both parents incubate the eggs, which hatch after about 32 days.

But if the parents are disturbed by the approach of people or animals, they may attempt to draw attention away from their nest by moving away - often for long enough for their eggs or chicks to die in the heat of the sun, or to fall prey to birds like the kelp gull, or to wild animals on the hunt, or even to dogs enjoying a day at the beach.

All these factors have always limited the growth rate of oystercatcher populations, but things got really bad when the 4x4 invaded South African beaches. Prof. Phil Hockey, the director of the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town from 2008 to 2013, wrote in 1997 that “there is an interesting and alarming correlation between a decrease in the breeding success of oystercatchers and an increase in the sales of 4X4 vehicles in South Africa”

By the 1980s, the population had fallen to less than 4,500 individuals, and their prospects were looking bleak. By 1998, they’d been declared a threatened species. But then the Percy FitzPatrick Institute initiated its Oystercatcher Conservation Programme - and the oystercatchers discovered a new food source.

The Programme - which included both a massive public awareness programme, and the inclusion of local communities in oystercatcher conservation - and improved management of our coastal areas (bans on the collection of guano on most near shore islands; a ban on the use of vehicles on our beaches) have made a massive impact on population sizes. Ironically, the introduction of exotic and invasive species of mussels to our shores has helped, too: the birds have taken to the Mediterranean mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis) with gusto, and may even prefer them to indigenous limpets.

It’s helped, too, that the African black oystercatcher is listed on Appendix II of the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement: as a party to the agreement, South Africa has taken their conservation seriously.

Congratulations, South Africa: our population of oystercatchers has risen to well over 6,000, and the species has now risen from ‘Threatened’ to ‘Near Threatened’ on the IUCN Red List. And there’s talk that it’ll soon be raised to ‘Least Concern,’ too.

The African black oystercatcher has been categorised as ‘Near Threatened’ in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species since 2012.