Sunday 9 December 2018

Country Matters: St Brigid's bird of the powerful beak

FORAGING: Oystercatchers can dig out 500 cockles a day
FORAGING: Oystercatchers can dig out 500 cockles a day

Joe Kennedy

At around this time in years past, large wintering flocks of oystercatchers would start to disperse along the Connacht coastline, and tradition was that the time of St Brigid was at hand.

The birds, mostly visitors from northern Europe, were called Giolla Brid or Brigid's Page, a name also known in the Scottish Islands. Their Swedish name, "strandskata" meaning "beach magpie", is more definitive and certainly less romantic than that of the Gael!

The flocks are not as common nor as impressive as they once were. In Wales in the 1970s there were so many birds that there was an official cull of about 10,000 in the Burry Inlet in Llanelli because local shellfish harvesters claimed their livelihoods were affected.

Oystercatchers, with their chisel beaks, can dig up to 500 cockles in a day. On the other hand, mussel cultivators don't complain as the birds provide a service by thinning and reducing density in the shell clumps, allowing a more healthy crop to develop.

Neither oysters nor cockles were comfortable with my youthful digestive system, though I have helped in gathering both, from cultivated oyster beds to remote sandy shores with a long-grained fork, turning up cockles for a keen harvester friend. I grew up in a fishing town with shellfish galore, which were enjoyed by yard cats. I was content with the empty shells!

Oystercatcher is an American name. The birds don't catch them and these days, when they can't find cockles by beach-digging, they will plunge their powerful beaks into the nearest grass for invertebrates.

The bird's beak is remarkable. The bone-strengthened bill is part-hammer, part-chisel, which can chop mussels from rocks but which has at its tip corpuscles that enable it to sense by touch. It can forage round the clock with that carrot-red-to-yellow weapon, which is both mussel blade and worm-teaser.

St Brigid's feast day marks the coming of spring, and before the Christian period the beginning of Imbolc, the ancient Celtic marking of the new season.

Some sources indicate the original Brigid or Bridget was an earth goddess who "became transformed into a saint by the early Christian Church". The Christian tradition is that she was a holy woman who founded a religious congregation of nuns in Kildare and is grouped in the trio of Irish saintly icons with Patrick and Colm Cille.

Brigid's birds are gregarious and noisy and excitable, with curious "piping parties" when establishing territory, running side-by-side, calling loudly. They have sturdy pink legs, a glossy black head and breast and white under-parts. Large white bars on broad black wings - beach magpies - offer a dazzling flight pattern.

The birds nest principally in Norway and Belgium. Thousands also winter here from Iceland, but an estimated 3,000 pairs remain in Ireland to breed, laying their eggs in simple scrapes in beach shingle.

They have an impressively long lifespan: one bird was recorded as living for 35 years.

Sunday Independent

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