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Chionidae – Sheathbills

Snowy Sheathbill in the South Sandwich Islands: Photo by Shailesh Pinto

Sheathbills, or chionids, are tough birds native to the cold, windswept coastlines of Antarctica and sub-Antarctic islands. Often found around penguin and seal colonies, they are opportunistic feeders known for their adaptability and varied diet, including scavenging, hunting insects, or eating algae. With white plumage and black facial markings, they stand out against the harsh, icy environment they call home.

Overview of Chionidae

In Antarctica’s harsh summer landscapes, the scavengers are clad in white. Named for the unique horny sheath on the top of their bills, sheathbills guard territories that overlap with seal or penguin colonies. Resembling stocky white pigeons, these birds scurry around scavenging scraps for their own young—anything from seal afterbirth to stray penguin egg morsels or spilled krill. After breeding season, some birds move to new foraging grounds, while others in the west venture across the water and travel north along the Southern Ocean coasts until winter weather stops them.