Country Matters: The bird who saved St Brigid and heralds the spring

An oystercatcher feasting on shellfish by the shore

Joe Kennedy

Oystercatchers (H aematopus ostralegus ), once seen in great flocks, especially along the western seaboard, may not be as plentiful as in the past but they maintain their link with the tradition of St Brigid, whose feast day is nigh and for whom a national holiday is planned from next year.

In Connacht they were, and are, called Giolla Bríd, the page or messenger of the saint, an indication of her time for them and the beginning of spring and the agricultural year — a practice, according to some sources, which has evolved from pre-Christian times. Larks and linnets were also favourites of St Brigid. They are supposed to be heard singing now but are a rare sight even among coastal dunes because of intrusion from people and animals, particularly dogs off-leash.

Oystercatchers also used to be a more commonplace seashore sight over the winter months, when thousands of birds would arrive from Scotland and Iceland to settle along estuaries. These flocks once made impressive sights, especially in Wales in the 1970s when there was an official cull of about 10,000 in the Burry inlet in Llanelli because shellfish harvesters claimed their livelihoods were affected. Oystercatchers, with their chisel-like beaks, were digging up to 500 cockles each a day. Mussel gatherers, on the other hand, didn’t complain as the birds provided a service in thinning and reducing density in the clumps of shells, allowing more healthy growth in the main crop.

Oystercatcher is an American name for a wading bird that used to have an abundance of shellfish to feast on along the long shores of the Chesapeake, Long Island Sound and even New York harbour environs. Today, on this island, if it cannot find cockles by digging in the sand or mussels to rip from rocks, it will plunge its beak into the greensward nearest the seashore seeking invertebrates.

The bird’s beak is remarkable, with a bone-strength bill — part hammer, part chisel — which can chop shellfish from rocks. It also has corpuscles at its tip that enable it to sense by touch so that it can forage in darkness if necessary. The carrot-red to yellow bill acts as a probe, enabling the constant prospecting of sandy shores before becoming a hammer and chisel.

They are gregarious and noisy birds, fast tideline runners with curious ‘piping parties’ during courtship when small groups run about with heads and bills held downwards and shoulders lifted, calling out bi glic, bi glic (be wise, be wise), it is said.

There is a folk tale that they once saved St Brigid from pursuit by covering her with seaweed. The bird’s name in Irish is roilleach, which appears in at least two place-names, Cregnarullagh in Co Mayo and Stackanrelagh in Donegal.

Oystercatchers have sturdy pink legs, glossy black heads and breasts, white underparts, and large white bars on broad black wings. They may be called beach magpies in some places, but they are highly mobile and make a dazzling flight pattern as they swoop low over the sea.

They nest mainly in Norway and Belgium. Of the Icelandic and Scottish birds that visit here, about 2,000 pairs may remain to breed laying eggs in simple scrapes on beach shingle. They can have long lifespans, one ringed bird being recorded for 35 years. Watch out for them in green areas near the sea, seeking worms when there are no easy pickings of molluscs to smash and grab.