The variable oystercatcher is a large heavily-built shorebird. Adults have black upperparts, Their underparts vary from all black, through a range of ‘smudgy’ intermediate states to white. They have a conspicuous long bright orange bill (longer in females), and stout coral-pink legs. The iris is red and eye-ring orange. Downy chicks occur in two colour morphs; they have a black bill, pale-mid grey upper parts with black markings, and either grey or off-white underparts. First-year birds have a dark tip to the bill, browner dorsal plumage, and grey legs. Previously shot for food, variable oystercatchers probably reached low numbers before being protected in 1922. Since then numbers have increased rapidly. They are long-lived, with some birds reaching 30+ years of age. The existence of different colour morphs (black, intermediate or ‘smudgy’, and pied) caused early confusion, and they were variously thought to be different species, forms, or hybrids. This confusion was compounded by a cline in morphs, with the proportion of all-black birds increasing from north to south. The colour morphs inter-breed freely and are now all accepted as being a single species.
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