There is a lot of mystique surrounding the shoebill stork. Questions are provoked by its uber-slow motions and prehistoric appearance. Its mysterious glare only adds to the curiosity. No wonder birdwatchers consider the shoebill stork as one of the five most desirable birds in Africa.
I mean, would ya check out that bill?!
As every biologically adapted feature plays its role, so does this one. It’s no doubt that the shoebill stork is an impressive bird outwardly. However, we’re going to get to know it more personally. After all, the bird is critically endangered, and spreading awareness is key to its conservation.
But first, we should clarify one thing — the shoebill stork is technically not a stork. We will get into that!
Shoebill storks are endemic to tropical Africa, with a range that’s pretty much smack-dab in the middle of the continent. It extends northwards into Sudan and southwards into Zambia. From west to east, the bird is usually spotted between Congo and Tanzania. However, it’s predominantly found in the West Nile sub-region and South Sudan.
Thanks to the swampy wetlands prevalent in these lands, the bird has plenty of hunting grounds. In fact, a correlation has been found between shoebill distribution and papyrus. The papyrus is used as shelter by lungfish — a staple in the bird’s diet.
Another go-to spot for shoebill storks is around poorly oxygenated waters. Due to the lack of oxygen, fish frequent the water’s surface — where the opportunistic bird awaits.
As non-migratory birds, shoebill storks reserve relocation for habitat changes, food sourcing, or human disturbance.
As mentioned, the shoebill stork is not a stork. The classification was given due to the bird’s general form — but closer examination has refuted this claim. Interestingly, shoebills fall in the Pelecaniformes order along with pelicans and herons.
This was first determined in 1995 during a microscopic analysis performed on shoebill eggshells. Like other Pelecaniformes, its shells are covered in a protein membrane called microglobulin. In 2003, anatomical and biochemical examinations provided further evidence of shoebills being closely related to pelicans and herons.
Shoebills are grey-blue and tall, standing between about 43 and 60 inches. Their wingspans are expansive and ideal for soaring — sometimes stretching past 8 feet. Legs are long, with extended middle toes that help keep the bird upright while standing upon aquatic vegetation. Females are smaller than males, falling on the smaller end of the size spectrum.
Now, let’s talk about that bill!
The bird got its name for a reason; its beak clearly resembles a shoe. More specifically, those old-school clogs from Holland — do you see it? Another name that gets tossed around is whalehead, which derives from the bird’s genus name (Balaeniceps rex).
Shoebills rock a bill that is the third-longest found amongst extant birds. Even the circumference of a pelican’s bill can’t keep up with that of a shoebill. The upper mandible is prominently keeled with a sharp nail formed at the tip.
Chicks are not automatically graced with this exceptional feature, though. They are introduced to the world with modestly-sized, grey-colored bills. It’s not until young shoebills reach about 43 days of age that their beaks are well developed.
The shoebill stork is primarily piscivorous, feeding on marbled lungfish, Senegal bichir, tilapia, and catfish. That being said, it has been observed gulping down the occasional frog, snake, Nile monitor, or baby crocodile. There is even rumor that shoebills have been caught eating calves — but we can’t confirm this.
Nevertheless, their massive, sharply-pointed bills give shoebills a unique edge. They don’t hold back in ambition when it comes to the size of their prey.
With the fierceness in this bird’s appearance, people tend to wonder if they are a threat to approaching humans. However, those so lucky to have been near a wild shoebill can confirm the bird’s docile presence.
However, shoebills are very sensitive and have been known to abandon their nests after feeling flustered by human presence. In general, they are solitary birds who prefer to nest and hunt alone. You’ll usually see a distance of at least 65 feet between foraging shoebills.
With patience and a precisely-calculated approach, shoebills hunt their prey. Their movements are subtle and slow, which makes this bird’s technique so effective.
Often while hunting, shoebills stand still as a statue, pressing their bills against their chest (see photo above). This is said to give the bird binocular vision to see its target in 3D. In fact, shoebills rely solely on their vision for hunting, which differentiates the bird from the typical wader.
When the timing is exactly right, the bird executes a powerful strike, snapping its bill onto the meal of its choice. This method is called “collapsing.” About 60% of the shoebill’s strikes result in captured prey — not bad!
Apart from its hunting technique, shoebill storks exhibit a few additional unique behaviors. For one, they are awkwardly slow blinkers — eyes shut for extended periods — making you wonder if they will ever open again. But not to fret! Slowly (but surely), the bird reveals its piercing eyes.
This bird’s leisurely momentum can even be seen during flight. Shoebills are one of the slowest flying birds, with an average flapping rate of about 150 beats/minute.
Another interesting behavior can be seen in both male and female shoebills during their courtship display. These well-mannered birdies will actually bow to each other!
And even though this bird is normally silent, you can occasionally catch them making a rattling sound with their bills. This display is performed near the birds’ nesting site and is sometimes accompanied by “moo-like” sounds and high-pitched shrieks. Even the nestlings have a unique form of communication — with begging sounds that resemble human hiccups.
Shoebill parents team up in creating and caring for their nest. Their go-to material: aquatic vegetation. Not only does the nest comprise this material, but it’s typically what forms the floating platform upon which they build the nest. When the eggs are laid, aquatic vegetation once again plays a key role as it’s placed across the eggs to keep them cool.
Unlike their heron and pelican relatives, shoebill storks do not nest in colonies. They are fiercely defensive, keeping a territory of up to 4 km2 well-guarded.
There are usually 2-3 eggs per nest — but only one chick is nurtured through maturity. The other 1-2 chicks are reserved as insurance in case the eldest is too weak or dies. If it’s strong enough, the “back-up” chicks either starve or are killed by their elder sibling. It’s harsh, but that’s nature.
Population and Conservation
The lifespan of shoebills can be quite long — one captive individual was reported to have lived 36 years. Although, it’s unknown how long the average lifespan of wild shoebills is.
Unfortunately, the shoebill storks’ population has steadily declined over the years. At this point, it’s estimated that there are between 5,000 and 8,000 existing individuals. The decrease in population is mainly due to wildfires, habitat loss, and the consumption of eggs by local indigenous communities.
Luckily, a team of African countries has been enforcing its conservation. Shoebill storks are protected by law in Sudan, the Central African Republic, Uganda, Rwanda, Zaire, and Zambia. Additionally, it’s included in Class A of the African Convention of Nature and Natural Resources.