Antarctic birds: Snowy Sheathbill

During the breeding season, penguin colonies start to colour red or pinkish. Reason for this is the large amount of penguin poo that is deposited during the season, which is red or pinkish due to their diet of krill (poo of fish-eating penguins is much more greenish). This is also the reason penguin colonies are kind of smelly.

Snowy Sheathbills in a dirty Gentoo Penguin colony.

As a part of this krill is not fully digested yet, there is still nutrition in it. So, bring in the Snowy Sheathbill, the garbagemen of the penguin colonies. Snowy Sheathbills love to eat krill, just like almost anybody else on Antarctica, but they’re not really built to go into the water and catch it themselves. So they wait for the penguins to get it for them and feed on the leftovers. They are often seen picking up penguin poo, but of course, prefer fresh krill. They sometimes manage to get some by pecking a penguin chick that is just about to be fed by its parent. The chick reacts, and the krill is spilt on the ground where the sheathbill can eat it.

A bath is often welcome when you surround yourself with penguin poo

Despite their chicken-like appearance (the Dutch name translates to ‘South Polar Chicken’), they do migrate. One doesn’t want to spend the winter in Antarctica, of course. They do migrate to Patagonia and the Falklands, where they spent the winter.

Adult Snowy Sheathbill
Juvenile Snowy Sheathbill

They usually lay 2-3 eggs which are incubated for around one month. The chicks (who look even more ugly as their parents) fledge another two months later. They are typically not shy at all to humans, often pecking in bags, loose items of clothing, boots or even in fingers or other body parts given the opportunity. They also regularly land on the ship while we’re somewhere close to a penguin colony.

Snowy Sheathbill at a Chinstrap Penguin colony

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