Return of Bird of the Week: Snowy Sheathbill


There are no vultures in the Antarctic. But there is carrion. The ecological niche of carrion eaters is occupied instead by the Sheathbills.

Snowy Sheathbill portrait, South Georgia Island

Snowy Sheathbill portrait, South Georgia Island

Sheathbills are odd in a number of ways. Two species of Sheathbill, the Snowy and the Black-faced, make up the entre family of Chionidae. They are also the only land bird in Antarctica, meaning they have talons and not webbed feet. They are the only sub-Antarctic species with bare skin on their face, and the only species with those odd, horny plates on their bilsl. It’s those plates that give the bird its common name.

Snowy Sheathbill, Elephent Island, Southern Ocean

Snowy Sheathbill, Elephant Island, Southern Ocean

Like a vulture, Sheathbills will eat pretty much anything, no matter how disgusting to humans. Seal poop, rotten seaweed, carrion and worse. Their cup-shaped nests are lined with a combination of bones, guano, dead chicks and even rubbish.

Snowy Sheathbill loitering in a Chinstrap Penguin colony, Deception Island, Southern Ocean

Snowy Sheathbill loitering in a Chinstrap Penguin colony, Deception Island, Southern Ocean

They look like a cross between a pigeon and a chicken, with a seriously over-sized bill. But they are well adapted to their environment and, unlike a lot of their fellow Antarctic birds, they appear to be thriving.

For more bird photos, please visit Frozen Feather Images.

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