Depending on your perspective, a shoebill either has the same goofy charm as the long-lost dodo or it looks like it might go on the attack any moment.
These stately wading birds stalk the marshes of South Sudan, Uganda, and elsewhere in tropical East Africa, snatching up prey with their unique, immediately recognizable bills. But there are a lot of misconceptions about shoebill storks—the first being that they’re not actually storks.
The scientific name of this outlandish bird – Balaeniceps rex – translates as “King whale-head”. Easy to spot, then? Hardly. So elusive is the shoebill that Western science didn’t lay eyes on one until 1851. Today, it remains top of the global twitchers’ wish list; only those prepared to brave the deepest swamps of central Africa need to apply.
Strike lucky, however, and you’ll see why John Gould described his first specimen as “the most extraordinary bird I have seen for many years”.
What impressed the great Victorian naturalist was, of course, that preposterous beak. Imagine a size-10 clog on the face of an outsized heron and you’ll get the picture. Some 23cm by 10cm, it is certainly as capacious as your average shoe. And what is more, it is a deadly weapon, with sharp slicing edges and a wicked hook that allows it to scoop, stab and crush all in one.
Its prey include fish (notably the African lungfish), snakes, water birds, and even young crocodiles. In short, anything that fits the bill. And the hapless victims never know what hits them, as the shoebill is a master of ambush, lurking in the shallows and then lunging forward with a speed that belies its size.
The Shoebill’s anatomy is perfect for singling out prey in shallow waters and executes its meal with one single strike of its comic yet exceptionally strong beak. A curved hook at the end of the Shoebill’s beak acts as a spear that delivers a fatal blow every single time. With an average lifespan of 25 years, the Shoebill can be a terrorizing swamp figure.
The Shoebill stork is a rare and critically endangered bird (whose population is documented to be less than 5000 in the wild). With long, spindly blue-grey legs that match its blue-grey feathers, the Shoebill stands almost 55 inches above the swampland mud that it calls home. The over-exaggerated beak simply beggars belief; this humongous appendage resembles the iconic Dutch clog rather than anything a bird might use to eat its meal, let alone something it would carry on its face!
The truth is, not much is known about this formidable bird. The first scientific documentation of the species only occurred in the late 19th century. The Shoebill is elusive and not very social. Individuals stay far away from each other except during breeding season and it is quite usual for the birds to maintain a distance of at least 20 metres apart during feeding and swampland meandering. Almost to prove their antisocial nature, usually, only one chick born to a pair will survive to adulthood. So ruthless is the Shoebill, that the largest chick in the hatch will commit fratricide without a moment’s hesitation. The surviving chicks are practically ejected from the nest once they have learnt the very basics of survival from their mothers.
PIC BY MARK DUDLEY / CATERS NEWS – (PICTURED: A Shoebill Stork in Uganda, Africa.) – Watch incredible giant bird who only allows people to come close to him if they bow before him first – just like Harry Potter character Buckbeak! The enormous grey Shoebill Stork, named Sushi, looks and acts just like the mythical character from Harry Potter and anyone wishing to pat the bird must firstly bow before coming within touching distance. If you do not bow your head to Sushi he flies off before you can come close. This footage was captured by amateur photographer Mark Dudley while on holiday at the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre in Entebbe with his daughter Isla, family friend Susan Cantella and her son Xavier. – SEE CATERS COPY[/caption]
Another notable feature of the African Shoebill is its soft, doe-like blue eyes,a genetic mutation found in certain populations. This has no effect on its ability to hunt though, but makes for an interesting sight should you enjoy the privilege of seeing one face-to-face in the wild.
Harry Potter fans would be interested to know that the Shoebill, when kept in captivity, has been known to display similar behaviour to the mythical Hippogriff in J.K Rowling’s popular fantasy saga. The Hippogriff as described in the Harry Potter books is a proud, flesh-eating, eagle-horse hybrid with a sensitive and noble character. In order to approach the Hippogriff without serious injury, one must bow to it before approaching. A captive Shoebill in Uganda named Sushi has displayed similar behaviour, and when the greeting is not reciprocated, Sushi flies away with disdain.
Shoebills have been a beloved species for a long time. They appear in the artwork of the ancient Egyptians. Arabs reportedly called the bird Abu-Markhub, or “father of a slipper” (just can’t get away from that shoe imagery).
So, anything cool about the bill other than that it’s gigantic, looks like footwear, and can decapitate crocodiles? Sure: It makes awesome machine-gun noises. Shoebills are silent most of the time but engage in “bill-clattering” around the nest or when greeting another bird. It’s loud and scary and the last sound that lots of poor monitor lizards ever hear.
[Source: Uganda Budget Safaris]
For all it’s quirks, the African Shoebill is an important part of Africa’s ecosystem. The Shoebill storks are not known to be aggressive towards humans and for all its atypical beauty, the Shoebill reminds us never to judge a book by its cover.