What Is A Shoebill?
The most eagerly sought of all African birds, the shoebill is scientifically known as Balaeniceps rex and it is named for its bill which looks like a shoe.
Also known as a shoebill or whale-headed, the shoebill has been a beloved species for a long time. They were known to both ancient Egyptians and Arabs. They even appear in the artwork of the ancient Egyptians.
The first known allusions to the shoebill came from early European explorers to Sudan, who wrote of a camel-sized flying creature known by locals as Abu-Markhub, or “father of a shoe” (just can’t get away from that shoe imagery).
The reports were dismissed as pure fancy by western biologists until 1851 when John Gould came across a bizarre specimen among an avian specimen shot on the Upper White Nile.
Describing it as the most extraordinary bird I have ever seen, Gould placed his discovery in a monotypic family and named it Balaeniceps rex meaning King Whale-head!
Gould believed the peculiar bird to be most closely related to pelicans, but it also shares some anatomic and behavioral characteristics with herons, and until recently it was widely held to be an evolutional offshoot of the stork family.
Recent DNA studies support Gould’s original theory; however, the shoebill is now placed in a monotypic sub-family of Pelecanidae.
How Do Shoebills Look Like?
Only those who have never seen a shoebill can doubt the existence of Dinosaurs. The Shoebill seems surreal, eerily prehistoric, something out of Jurassic Park. In fact, three facts combine to give the shoebill its bizarre and pre-historic appearance.
- The first is its enormous proportions. Shoebills stand over 4 feet tall, has a wingspan of up to 8 feet, and weigh up to 7 kilograms.
- The second is its unique uniform slate grey coloration.
- And last but not least is its unique foot-long shoe-shaped bill, tan with brown splotches, five inches wide, has sharp edges and a sharp hook on the end−the largest bill among all living bird species.
- The shoebill’s bill is fixed in a permanent Cheshire-cat smirk that contrives to look at once sinister and somewhat inane, and when perturbed the bird loudly claps its upper and lower bill, rather like outsized castanets.
- Other features of a shoe bill include long-thin legs with large feet which are ideal for walking on the vegetation in the freshwater marshes and swamps, yellow eyes, gray feathers, white bellies, and a small feathered crest on the back of their heads.
- The neck is relatively shorter and thicker than other long-legged wading birds such as herons and cranes.
What Do Shoebills Eat?
The shoebill diet includes big fish like catfish and lungfish. Its menu also includes crazy stuff like Nile monitor lizards, snakes, turtles, toads, and baby crocodiles.
The Hunting Technique Of A Shoebill
Shoebills practice a hunting technique called “collapsing,” which involves lunging or falling forward on their prey.
Hunting like total bosses of the swamp, the Shoebill will stand there, motionless as a statue, and wait for some poor lungfish or baby crocodile to swim by.
Then the bird will pounce forward, all five feet of it, with its massive bill wide open, engulfing its target along with water, mud, vegetation, and probably any other hapless fish minding its own business.
Clamping down on its prey, the bird will start to swing its massive head back and forth, tipping out whatever stuff it doesn’t want to eat. When there’s nothing but lungfish or baby crocodile left, the shoebill will give it a quick decapitation with the sharp edges of the bill and swallow away.
Shoebills are silent most of the time but engage in “bill-clattering” around the nest or when communicating with another bird.
When engaging in these displays, adult birds have also been noted to utter a cow-like moo as well as high-pitched whines. It’s loud and scary and the last sound those lots of poor monitor lizards ever hear.
The Life-Span A Shoebill
The lifespan of a shoebill bird is no less remarkable than its appearance. It is one of the few birds with a life span of up 50 years.
Shoebills are generally monogamous, with pairs coming together during the breeding season (April to June) to construct grassy nests up to 3 meters wide on a mound of floating vegetation or a small island.
Two eggs are laid, and the parents rotate incubation duties, in hot weather filling their massive bills with water to spray over the eggs to keep them cool.
The chicks hatch after about a month and will need to be fed by parents for at least another two months until the beaks are fully developed. Only one chick typically survives to fledge.
The Conservation Status Of The Shoebill
Birdlife International has recently the shoebill as Vulnerable and it is classified as CITES Appendix 2, which means that trade in shoebills, or their capture for any harmful activity, is forbidden by international law.
The global population is estimated at around 8,000 individuals living in South Sudan, Uganda, the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Zambia.
Ironically, although Uganda is the easiest to see the shoebill in the wild, and the national population accounts for about 300 adult birds.
The Major Threat To The Survival Of The Shoebills
- Habitat destruction by farmers
- Shoebills are hunted for illegal trade
- In the Lake Kyoga region of Uganda, local fishermen often kill shoebills for cultural reasons; they believe that seeing a shoebill before a fishing expedition is a bad omen.