Watching the Black Oystercatchers at work, I always admire their industry and their intelligence in using their beak. This hard and sharp implement serves them not only as a straw to suction up soft protein, but also as a pry bar to dislodge buried assets, a chisel to break open shells, and a tweezer to access little bits of nutrition in cramped corners. They are West Coast natives, most comfortable on rocky shorelines. A regional initiative to protect them, launched in 2007, reports numerous threats to their habitat, and outlines recommended conservation actions.
The bird’s scientific name, Haematopus bachmani, refers to John Bachman, a 19th century Lutheran minister, naturalist, and slave owner who was noted for his blending of religious with scientific arguments in defense of slavery. In his book, The Doctrine of the Unity of the Human Race (1850), he writes, for example: “[W]e have been irresistibly brought to the conviction, that in intellectual powers the African is an inferior variety of our species. His whole history affords evidence that he is incapable of self-government.” And much more in the same vein. It was his friend and fellow slave-owner John James Audubon who hung Bachman’s name around the neck of the Black Oystercatcher. As a result, we today resurrect the odious name of Bachman from a well deserved oblivion every time we recite this bird’s scientific name. Can’t bird scientists clean the house of its nomenclature?