The shoebill stork (Balaeniceps rex) is a sight to behold, resembling a cross between a dinosaur and a Jim Henson puppet. The large African bird gets its name from its distinctive shoe-shaped beak. These birds, also known as whale-headed storks, are not storks at all, but are more closely related to pelicans and herons. These solitary birds are fascinating not only because of their prehistoric appearance, but also because of their behavior.
Habitat and Size
The swamps of eastern Africa are the shoebill’s natural habitat. Their long, thin legs and large feet allow them to wade through the vegetation of swamps and marshes from Ethiopia to Zambia. They truly are kings of their environment due to their stature. They can grow up to five feet tall and have an eight-foot wingspan, making them quite intimidating. Their clog-like beak is over a foot long and nearly half a foot wide.
But if you came across a shoebill, you’d be intimidated not only by its size, but also by the fact that it doesn’t move. Shoebills can remain motionless for hours at a time, waiting for the ideal moment to catch their prey. And when the time is right, they make their move by collapsing, a behavior. This means they simply fall forward on their prey, beaks wide open, and scoop up their meal.
They are deliberate not only in their movements but also in their sounds. Except when they arrive at the nest, Shoebills are usually silent. Then, like storks, they’ll clatter their bills to communicate with one another.
Diet and Conservation
Don’t worry if you’re wondering what these prehistoric-looking birds eat—humans aren’t on the menu. Although shoebills are carnivores, they prefer small prey. Their main source of protein is fish. They eat primarily lungfish, bichirs, catfish, and tilapia. They can, however, prey on monitor lizards, baby crocodiles, turtles, and frogs.
Surprisingly, shoebills do not live in packs. Even mating pairs will look for food at opposite ends of the territory. They can live in the wild for nearly 36 years and, as one might expect, adults have no major predators. To keep predators from stealing eggs, shoebills build their nests in difficult-to-reach places, and they aren’t afraid to get aggressive to defend those nests.
Unfortunately, as one might expect, we are the shoebill’s primary predator. Populations are being harmed by habitat destruction and industrial pollution. Shoebills are also hunted for food in some areas, while they are killed in others because they are thought to be bad omens. The IUCN estimates that there are currently between 3,300 and 5,300 adult shoebills left in the wild. The vast majority of that population lives in South Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zambia.
Questions and Answers
WHAT SIZE ARE SHOEBILLS?
Shoebills range in height from 43 to 55 inches (110 to 140 cm). Their length from tail to beak varies between 39 and 55 inches (100 to 140 cm). Males weigh 12 pounds (5.6 kg) on average, while females weigh 11 pounds (4.9 kg).
A SHOEBILL CAN FLY?
They certainly can. Although the shoebill is not a migratory bird, it will survey its territory during the day. It reveals its entire wingspan, which can reach up to 8 feet.
WHERE CAN I GET A LOOK AT A SHOEBILL STORK?
If you want to see a shoebill in the wild, you’ll need to travel to eastern Africa’s swamps and marshes. Shoebills can be seen in the United States at ZooTampa in Florida and the Dallas World Aquarium in Texas.
ARE SHOEBILL STORKS IN PERIL?
While shoebills are not endangered, their numbers are declining. The IUCN classifies them as vulnerable, with an estimated population of 3,300 to 5,300 adults remaining in the wild.
ARE SHOEBILLS SAFE?
If a human approached a shoebill, the bird would most likely stare. However, shoebills can be aggressive when defending their nest, so don’t be fooled by their motionlessness.
SHOEBILLS LIVE HOW LONG?
A shoebill stork’s lifespan is similar whether in captivity (between 35.7 and 36 years) or in the wild (35.7 years)
Learn More About the Shoebill Stork