An idle mind is the devil’s playground. So I keep mine occupied by pondering such questions as: “Does an American oystercatcher really catch oysters?”
I looked it up. It does.
The oystercatcher is a tall shorebird, with long legs and a long red bill. It uses its comical bill to probe for clams, mussels and oysters. It walks along shellfish beds, seeking mollusks that are partially open. Before the critter can clam up, the oystercatcher shoves its bill through the shell opening and clips the mussel muscle.
This strategy works pretty well, but sometimes the mussel wins. A mussel that is firmly rooted to the ocean floor can clamp down on the bill and hold the oystercatcher in place until the tide comes in, with tragic consequences for the bird. This is rare, since another method the oystercatcher uses to open shellfish is to bash it on a rock. The oystercatcher’s diet also includes sea urchins, starfish and marine worms, so on the whole, life is pretty good for an oystercatcher.
American oystercatchers were found nesting on Cape Sable Island in Nova Scotia for one season in 1999, but the northernmost recurring pair seems to be on Green Island near Petit Manan in Maine. I’ve seen it in that neighborhood three times over the years. They are encountered more frequently around Cape Elizabeth, and they become familiar along the southern coasts of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.
Having kept the devil at bay this long, I pushed my luck and pondered: “Does a ruddy turnstone turn stones?”
This stocky, medium-sized shorebird uses its long, straight bill to flip over pebbles and other objects in search of small invertebrates beneath. It also probes crevices in the rocks along the shoreline where it is often seen. It is a regular breeder in Maine, and it is sometimes seen even in winter.
Most birds are named for the families in which they are classified: ducks, gulls, herons, warblers, sparrows, etc. These names are further distinguished by a modifier, such as color. So we have purple finches, yellow warblers, blue jays, black ducks, great blue herons, and scarlet tanagers. Sometimes the color reference is so strong that it becomes the name of the bird, such as greater yellowlegs, eastern bluebirds, common goldeneyes and common yellowthroats.
Of course, the modifier may be the name of a person, such as Wilson’s warbler, Cooper’s hawk, Lincoln’s sparrow, Bicknell’s thrush, Nelson’s sparrow, Bonaparte’s gull and Leach’s storm-petrel — all Maine breeders.
Another typical naming scheme is to name a bird for what it sounds like. Chickadees, phoebes, pewees, pipits, willets, towhees and whip-poor-wills fall into this category, and a case can be made to include hummingbirds.
But how many birds are named after what it is they do, such as the oystercatcher and turnstone?
Here the devil took up the challenge, and we took turns throwing bird names at each other. It started with a few easy ones: flycatcher, woodpecker and kingfisher. There is a blue-gray gnatcatcher in Maine and a Clarke’s nutcracker out west. I let the devil have that one, even though it wasn’t a Maine bird, because I had northern shoveler ready to reply. This duck has a long, wide bill that it uses to dig in the mud.
When it was his turn again, the devil hemmed and hawed a little longer. Finally, he blurted out: “sapsucker.”
“Brown creeper,” I quickly retorted.
The devil paused longer, then brightened and shrieked: “shearwater.”
I had to give it to him.
Four species of shearwater venture into the Gulf of Maine. All fly close to the surface. When they bank into a turn, their wingtip sometimes dips into the ocean, shearing a ripple through the water. In return, he allowed me northern harrier, since neither of us knew if it described harrying prey.
His turn again, the devil paled and thought hard.
“Swallow,” he cried at last.
“You lose,” I chuckled.
While it is true that they swallow, that’s not where the bird gets its nomenclature. The name is very old, with Germanic and Slavic roots. By the time it became an Old English word, it was spelled swealwe. The bird is definitely not named after what it does.
Now angry, the devil offered double or nothing. He said flatly, all those other birds were named after what they did. I’ll bet your immortal soul that you can’t give me a Maine bird name that sounds like an activity, but isn’t.
“Killdeer,” I laughed.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at email@example.com.