It looks so pretty, doesn’t it? Don’t touch it. This bird is the lobster of the land, sucking up everything that comes out of the back end of other animals, and supplementing it with the occasional murdered penguin chick.
The snowy sheathbill, if we want to be delicate about it, is a scavenger. It will eat things like decaying kelp and small animals that live along the seashore, but it’s better known for eating the waste of any animal in sight. Sheathbills hang around human camp sites and research stations, eager to pick through any human waste. They also will pick through the leavings of seals, other shore birds, and especially penguins. One snowy sheathbill made history when researchers noticed it eating a live tapeworm that had just come out of a penguin’s intestines.
Believe it or not, literal shit-stirring is the more savory part of this birds’ diet. It doesn’t just hang around penguin nests for the feces. If the adult penguins leave their nests unguarded, it will swoop in and eat eggs, but it prefers eating live penguin chicks. It can only overcome them when they’re just hatched and still in their downy stage. To round out its diet, the snowy sheathbill will attack and tear flesh off the other cutest animal in the arcti—newborn seal pups.
Yes, in this bird’s world, the name “shit-eater” is a compliment.
Image: David M. Jensen