45 Facts About the Shoebill Stork: A Strange and Impressive Bird
Intimidating and Fascinating Birds
The shoebill stork has a strange and impressive appearance. When some people have seen a photo of the bird, they've doubted that it’s a real animal. It seems impossible that it could have such a huge bill, but the feature is a genuine part of the bird’s anatomy. The animal has other unusual features and is sometimes said to look prehistoric. In this article, I describe forty-five facts about the interesting and sometimes intimidating shoebill. I discuss:
- classification, distribution, and habitat
- physical features
- chick survival
- population threats
The shoebill stork population is classified as vulnerable. The animal isn't endangered at the moment, but there are some concerns about its future. We need to deal with these concerns now in order to prevent the situation from becoming worse.
Classification, Distribution, and Habitat
1. The scientific name of the shoebill stork is Balaeniceps rex. It’s also known as the shoebill and the whalehead.
2, Though it’s often referred to as a stork, scientists say that the shoebill is more closely related to pelicans than storks. it was once placed in the stork order (Ciconiiformes) but is now placed in the pelican one (Pelicaniformes).
3. The bird is endemic to central and eastern Africa and lives in multiple countries. It's found in some zoos outside of the African continent.
4. The animal lives and feeds in tropical marshes. These contain grasses and sedges as well as bodies of water.
5. Papyrus is often a dominant plant in a marsh occupied by shoebills. Cyperus papyrus is a flowering plant in the sedge family. Ancient Egyptians used the pith in its stems to make paper.
6. Shoebills are also seen in tropical swamps. Swamps are wet areas like marshes, but the dominant plant type is trees.
7. The birds most often search for their prey in shallow water that has low-growing vegetation.
8. They frequently live in areas that humans find hard to reach. There are still some mysteries attached to their life in the wild.
In my experience, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) uses matter-of-fact language to describe species and their problems in its Red List. Even the IUCN seems to be impressed by the shoebill, though. It says that it's "a large grey, stork-like waterbird with a fantastically unique bill. Unmistakable."
Physical Features of the Bird
9. The shoebill is a tall bird with predominantly blue-grey feathers. The flight and tail feathers are dark grey to black. The first feature that an onlooker notices is almost certainly the bird's huge bill.
10. The light tan, pale orange, or pink bill is so large that it looks out of proportion in comparison to the rest of the body, especially in mature males. The bill is often decorated with black or blue-grey flecks.
11. The bill of a mature adult is about nine inches long and almost four inches wide. It has a hook at its tip.
12. The back of the bird's head has a tuft of feathers.
13. The iris of the eye is yellow or yellow-green. The bird sometimes keeps its eyes closed for longer than would be expected when it blinks. This behaviour can be seen in some of the videos in this article.
14. The bird's long and thin legs look like stilts and are usually dark in colour.
15. The large and scaly feet remind some people of those of a dinosaur. The toes are long and aren't webbed.
16. An adult is three-and-a-half to four-and-a-half-feet tall. Occasionally, a bird reaches five feet in height.
17. Males are a little larger than females and have bigger bills.
Sushi the shoebill lives at the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre. If visitors bow to him, he bows as well and allows the people to touch him. If the visitors don't bow, Sushi moves away and won't let them touch him. His appearance and behaviour remind people of Buckbeak, the hippogriff in the Harry Potter stories. Sushi is shown in the video below.
Behaviour, Feeding, and Diet
18. Although two of the photos in this article show a pair of shoebills, the wild birds are more often seen alone.
19. The shoebill is carnivorous. It's generally seen either walking slowly through a marsh as it hunts or standing motionless in the water. It often stands still for a long time and is very patient. When it spots its prey, however, it springs into action.
20. The lunge of a shoebill for its prey is rapid and powerful. The behaviour is known as "collapsing".
21. The edges of the bill are sharp and help the animal to catch its prey.
22. When the bird is hunting, it holds its bill vertically downwards and rests it against its chest. This facilitates its binocular vision, or the ability to see a three-dimensional image.
23. Shoebills primarily feed on fish. Their favourite prey is lungfish. They also eat frogs, water snakes, lizards, and even baby crocodiles. They sometimes eat rats as well.
24. Several sources say that the birds are partially nocturnal and sometimes feed at night.
25. Shoebills do fly, but they don't travel very far by this method. The birds fly with their head retracted, or drawn back against their body, as pelicans and herons do.
Courtship, Egg Production, and Incubation
26. Shoebills are generally solitary animals. They are rarely seen together except during the breeding season.
27. The male and the female bow to each other during their courtship display, as Sushi does when he meets people. The species is monogamous.
28. The nest is built from aquatic plants on floating vegetation. The parents create the nest together.
29. Shoebills generally lay two eggs. Occasionally, one or three eggs are laid.
30. The eggs are laid at intervals of three to five days instead of all at once.
31. The parents take turns in incubating the eggs. If the eggs become too hot, the adult drops water (which they carry in their beak) or wet vegetation over the eggs to cool them.
32. Incubation lasts for around thirty days.
33. A bird sometimes emits a bill clattering sound while on the nest, apparently as a greeting to its mate.
Survival of the Chicks
34. The chicks clatter their bills as the adults do and also produce a hiccuping sound as they beg for food. This sound can be heard in the video below.
35. Unfortunately, only one chick in a group survives, with very few exceptions. The surviving chick is generally the strongest one. It either wins the competition for food from the adult, leaving its sibling (or siblings) to die of hunger, or it kills the sibling.
36. The chick that hatches first is usually the strongest because it's been fed and has grown before the second egg hatches. It's thought that the production of a second and subsequent chick is a type of insurance in case the first chick is weak or in poor health.
37. The chick takes three to fours years to reach reproductive maturity.
38. In captivity, the shoebill has lived as long as thirty-six years and even up to fifty years according to one report. Its lifespan in the wild is unknown.
The video below shows an adult trying to catch food. It also shows the bigger chick attacking the smaller one, the smaller chick wandering away from the nest, and the parent ignoring it. The later death of the younger chick, perhaps primarily due to dehydration and starvation, is not shown.
39. The IUCN maintains a Red List describing the population status of different species. It places each species in a category according to its nearness to extinction. The shoebill is classified in the "Vulnerable" category.
40. The last assessment of the bird's status was made in August, 2018. The population size was estimated to be 5,000 to 8,000 animals in 2002. Another estimate of less than 10,000 animals was made in 2006. In 2018, the estimated size of the population was 3,300 to 5,300 mature animals.
41. The Red List entry says that the bird's population is continuing to decline due to three major factors: hunting, nest disturbance, and the modification or loss of its habitat. The threats vary in nature or significance in different countries.
42. Some shoebill habitats have been converted into land for growing crops or for feeding cows. Even when the birds are able to stay in the habitat, cows sometimes trample the nests.
43. The birds are hunted for food and their eggs are collected for the same reason. In some areas, the adult birds and the chicks are captured for the live animal trade.
Conservation of Shoebills
44. Action plans and conservation areas have been established to protect shoebills. The conservation areas are not always respected or protected properly, however. In some places, guards have been employed, This has not only increased the protection of the animals but has raised awareness about their problems.
45. Concerned individuals and organizations have made suggestions for helping the birds in the future. These suggestions include:
- Identify areas that need to be monitored better and perform regular surveys of these areas.
- Select the areas that most require protection and then establish procedures to help the birds that live there.
- Enforce laws that have been established to protect the birds.
- Educate communities about the value of the living bird.
- Encourage ecotourism.
Protecting the Birds
It's good that people are thinking of ways to help shoebills before their population reaches the "Endangered" category, which is the next Red List category in the journey towards extinction. Conservation plans are important, but they may need to be tailored for the political or social conditions in the local community in order to be successful. It's also important that as many conservation policies as possible begin now instead of staying in the planning stage. I hope that the unique and interesting shoebill survives for a long time to come.
Questions & Answers
What research methods can I use in promoting community conservation actions to protect the shoebill stork?
I have one suggestion, though the answer to your question really depends on the composition and customs of your community. Education of the community is probably important. People generally need to learn about an animal’s features and its benefits in order to develop an interest in preserving it. You could explore the educational techniques that might be most effective and interesting for people in your area and the best ways to show them that the bird deserves to be protected.
© 2018 Linda Crampton