Bird Fact Friday – The Snowy Sheathbill

Adapted from page 190-191 of Antarctic Wildlife:

The Snowy Sheathbill is a chunky, broad-winged, short-billed, short-tailed bird that recalls a pigeon, particularly in its rapid flight. It has entirely white plumage, with pink facial skin, a yellow-grey bill and dark grey legs. Juveniles are similar, but have a smaller facial wattle. The combination of behaviour, habitat, shape and plumage render this remarkable bird unmistakable.

Watching this ugly yet endearing bird provides great amusement. Snowy Sheathbills are hyperactive, walking rapidly yet clumsily through penguin colonies and across open ground. They are very tame and inquisitive, regularly approaching human visitors and even investigating their clothing and gear on the off chance that they contain illicit foodstuffs. This species is fond of flying out to ships and perching on zodiacs, often balancing on one leg. A gregarious bird, squabbling groups sometimes utter a crow-like “caw ”.

The Snowy Sheathbill (Chionis albus) take their English name from the bony casing (sheath) in which the bill is encased, rather like a sword in its scabbard.

Sheathbills are the ‘cleaners’ of seal and penguin colonies, playing a vital ecological role. Perhaps the ultimate in sheathbill grossness was the individual watched devouring a tapeworm that had just been ejected from a Chinstrap Penguin’s intestine. However, having them around is a mixed blessing for penguins as they are also cunning confidence tricksters. Pairs work together to distract adult penguins feeding their chicks with regurgitated krill. One sheathbill pecks at a penguin until it spills the meal, at which point its partner leaps in and grabs the prize – and sheathbills are not averse to seizing unguarded eggs.

Sheathbills are remarkable for several reasons. Among their many claims to fame, the Sheathbill family (Chionidae) is the only bird family that breeds solely on Antarctica. Sheathbills are, however, the only regularly occurring Antarctic bird that does not have webbed feet, so they avoid contact with water.


Antarctic Wildlife: A Visitor’s Guide
By James Lowen

Antarctic Wildlife is the definitive identification guide to the birds and marine mammals of the Antarctic Peninsula, Drake Passage, and Beagle Channel. This easy-to-use photographic field guide enables visitors to this unique region of the world–newcomer and seasoned traveler alike–to identify with confidence the penguins, whales, seals, seabirds, and other stunning wildlife they encounter on their journey. Full-color photographs show typical views of each species of bird or marine mammal, together with the terrestrial plants likely to be seen. Detailed species accounts describe key identification features, give tips on where to look, and highlight interesting facts. This one-of-a-kind guide also includes introductory chapters that cover the wildlife of each Antarctic environment by season, as well as information on tourism and Antarctic cruising that will help visitors get the most from their trip.

Antarctic Wildlife is a must-have photographic guide for travelers taking the standard cruise from Ushuaia, Argentina, to the great white continent, and for anyone interested in the diverse wildlife found in this remote part of the world.

  • Covers the wildlife of the Antarctic Peninsula, Drake Passage, and Beagle Channel
  • Features full-color photographs throughout
  • Describes key identification features and gives tips on where to look
  • Includes an introduction to Antarctic environments and information on Antarctic cruising
This post is part of a series, explore additional posts here<< Bird Fact Friday – Verreaux’s Eagle OwlBird Fact Friday – Antarctica’s Crested Duck >>