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50 Facts About the Shoebill Stork: A Large and Strange Bird

Linda Crampton is a writer and former science teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys writing about science and nature.

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 fifty facts about the very interesting and sometimes intimidating shoebill. I discuss:

  • classification, distribution, and habitat
  • physical features
  • behaviour
  • diet
  • reproduction
  • chick survival
  • population threats
  • conservation

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, Range, 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). It's the only species in the family Balaenicipitidae within this order.

3. The bird is endemic to central and eastern Africa and lives in multiple countries on the continent. It's found in some zoos outside of its natural habitat.

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."

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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.

14. 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.

15. The animal’s long and thin legs look like stilts and are usually dark in colour.

16. The large and scaly feet remind some people of those of a dinosaur. The toes are long and aren't webbed.

17. An adult is three-and-a-half to four-and-a-half-feet tall. Occasionally, a bird reaches five feet in height.

18. 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 behaviour is natural greeting behaviour, but it reminds people of Buckbeak, the hippogriff in the Harry Potter stories. Sushi is shown in the video below.

Behaviour, Feeding, and Diet

19. Although two of the photos in this article show a pair of shoebills, the wild birds are more often seen alone.

20. 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, it springs into action.

21. The lunge of a shoebill for its prey is rapid and powerful. The behaviour is known as "collapsing".

22. The edges of the bill are sharp and help the animal to catch its prey.

23. When the bird is hunting, it holds its bill vertically downwards and rests it against its chest. This is believed to facilitate its binocular vision, or the ability to see a three-dimensional image.

24. 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.

25. The birds often defecate on their legs. Their poop contains a lot of liquid. As in other birds, the “poop” is actually a mixture of waste from the digestive tract and the kidneys. The evaporation of the liquid on the legs helps to cool the bird down.

26. Several sources say that the birds are partially nocturnal and sometimes feed at night.

27. 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

28. Shoebills are generally solitary animals. They are rarely seen together except during the breeding season.

29. The male and the female bow to each other during their courtship display, as Sushi does when he meets people. The species is monogamous.

30. The nest is built from aquatic plants on floating vegetation. The parents create the nest together.

31. Shoebills generally lay two eggs. Occasionally, one or three eggs are laid.

32. The eggs are laid at intervals of three to five days instead of all at once.

33. The parents take turns in incubating the eggs.

34. 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.

35. Incubation lasts for around thirty days.

36. A bird sometimes emits a bill clattering sound while on the nest, apparently as a greeting to its mate. The clattering may be made in other situations. It can be heard in the first two videos in this article.

Survival of the Chicks and Lifespan of the Bird

37. 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.

38. 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.

39. The chick that hatches first is usually the strongest because it's been fed and has grown before the second egg hatches.

40. 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.

41. The chick takes three to fours years to reach reproductive maturity.

42. 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 a bigger chick attacking a 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.

Population Threats

43. 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.

44. 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.

45. 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.

46. 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.

47. 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

48. Action plans and conservation areas have been established to protect shoebills. The conservation areas are not always respected or protected properly, however.

49. In some places, guards have been employed to protect the birds. This has not only increased the protection of the animals but has raised awareness about their problems.

50. 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

Question: What research methods can I use in promoting community conservation actions to protect the shoebill stork?

Answer: 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


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 17, 2020:

Thanks for the comment, Natalija. I hope your assignment goes well.

Natalija on June 17, 2020:

I really like the pictures and the information it really helps for my assignment

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 11, 2020:

Thank you, Denise. I think the bird is fascinating, too. Blessings to you as well.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on May 11, 2020:

What a fascinating bird. I love how you keep finding animals and birds to share that are rare and wonderful and almost always new to me.



Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 21, 2019:

Thanks for the comment, Marilyn. I think the bird is unusual and very interesting.

Marilyn Lowry on July 21, 2019:

What a fabulous bird. The first time I saw a photograph of one, I didn't think it was real. Thanks for the videos, pics & fascinating information.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 03, 2019:

I'm glad you like the site, Jake. Thanks for commenting.

jake on May 03, 2019:

really nice website

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 16, 2019:

Thank you for the comment and for helping the birds. Good luck with your conservation efforts.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 22, 2019:

Hi, Peggy. The birds are very interesting, but the treatment of the weaker chick is sad. I think that nature is fascinating, but it includes unpleasantness and sadness as well as beauty.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 22, 2019:

What a fascinating looking bird! I enjoyed reading about the shoebill stork and watching all of the videos you included in your article. It is not the first bird that I have read about where only one chick survives. That part is sad, particularly when viewing what the stronger chick does to the other one as shown in that video.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 22, 2019:

Thank you very much for the comment, Steve. I think the bird looks amazing, too!

Steve Andrews from Lisbon, Portugal on January 22, 2019:

What an amazing looking bird! Thanks for writing this very informative hub!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 04, 2018:

Hi, Bede. The bill's colours can certainly be attractive. I like your comparison with polished granite. Sushi does sound like an interesting character. I'd love to meet him in person.

Bede from Minnesota on September 04, 2018:

Hi Linda, I enjoyed reading about this unique and imposing bird. The bill looks like polished granite with all the colors and swirls. Sushi’s quite a character- who wouldn’t have the courtesy to bow?

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 31, 2018:

Thanks for the visit, Dora. The beak is certainly formidable. It's an impressive structure.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on August 30, 2018:

So there's purpose for everything, even the formidable beak on this strange looking bird. Great that prevention from extinction is a serious concern. As usual, thanks for the interesting facts.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 29, 2018:

Hi, Manatita. I think the difference between their immobile state and their active one is impressive. Like you, I hope they have a safe future.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 29, 2018:

Hi, Heidi. The idea of birds being dinosaurs is very interesting. Thank you for the comment.

manatita44 from london on August 29, 2018:

They are fascinating to watch ... seemingly immobile, but quite quick. Yes. Let's hope they are left alone.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on August 29, 2018:

I just saw an article about another study that further supported the theory that today's birds are actually dinosaurs. When I saw the little video of it making the strange noises, it certainly looked very dinosaur-like. Thanks for sharing more fascinating nature!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 29, 2018:

I like the similarity to Buckbeak, too, Peg. I find the treatment of the ignored chick sad as well. There may be interesting facts about the shoebill's life that haven't yet been discovered. I'm looking forward to future reports.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 29, 2018:

Hi, Bill. I think it's a fascinating creature, too. I hope researchers learn more about the bird.

Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on August 29, 2018:

This is really a fascinating and odd looking creature. I love the similarity to Buckbeak the Hippogriff. Sad to me that there is only one survivor of the clutch of eggs. They are really prehistoric looking birds. Lots of interesting facts here.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on August 29, 2018:

Hi Linda. I have seen pictures of the shoebill stork before but did not know much about them. Certainly a fascinating creature with a very unique appearance. Thank you as always for the education.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 28, 2018:

Hi, Paula. Thank you for the visit. I appreciate your comment very much.

Suzie from Carson City on August 28, 2018:

Linda...You never fail to bring us a fascinating education on a topic we may not have otherwise been introduced to. I appreciate this and really enjoyed learning of this unusual stork. He's certainly not the one who delivers our babies in this neck of the woods!! LOL

Thanks, Alicia.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 28, 2018:

Hi, Genna. The shoebill does look a bit like a cartoon character. It's an unusual and very interesting bird. Thanks for the visit.

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on August 28, 2018:

Oh my, Linda. The moment I saw that photo, I was enthralled with this odd, fascinating creature. He almost looks like a caricature or a character from an animated film. Nearly five feet in height? Amazing. And it's carnivorous. I also hope that the Shoebill survives for a long time to come. Thank you for sharing this.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 28, 2018:

I appreciate your comment, Liz.

Liz Westwood from UK on August 28, 2018:

Thanks. I have learned a lot from this article.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 28, 2018:

Thank you, Eman.

Eman Abdallah Kamel from Egypt on August 28, 2018:

A very informative article about Shoebill Stork.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 28, 2018:

Hi, Mary. The big species of birds are impressive. We have herons in our area, too. I'm always happy to see one.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on August 28, 2018:

We have herons around in our area nd they are big birds, too. The bill of the stork is really big. It can easily carry a baby as legends claim. Now you make me wish to see a real live one.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 28, 2018:

Hi, Bill. I wish I was too young to remember the show! I've heard of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom but never saw it. Thank you very much for the comment.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 28, 2018:

You are too young to remember Marlin Perkins on an old show called Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom...but your articles always remind me of that show....always filled with fascinating information.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 28, 2018:

Thank you for the comment, Chitrangada. The birds certainly have some unique characteristics. They are interesting to observe. I haven't heard of other captive shoebills bowing to humans as Sushi does. He is definitely unique and interesting!

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on August 28, 2018:

A very Interesting and informative article about shoebill stork birds.

I am not aware of these interesting creatures and thanks for the education. They look quite large, with unique characteristics—Bowing to the visitors and expecting bows in return is one of them.

Thanks for sharing the beautiful pictures and videos!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 27, 2018:

Hi, Flourish. Yes, the video was amusing, but I feel sorry for Sushi, too. It would be nice if he had a more natural life.

FlourishAnyway from USA on August 27, 2018:

They almost look like cartoon birds that’s child would draw with disproportionate features. I loved the video of Sushi, then when I read that Boeing was part of their mating display I wondered if he was simply very confused thinking he was about to find a love match, over and over only to have it go nowhere. Poor Sushi.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 27, 2018:

I haven't, either! Thanks for the visit, Alexander.

Alexander James Guckenberger from Maryland, United States of America on August 27, 2018:

I'm not sure I have seen anything else quite like it. :D

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 27, 2018:

Thank you very much for the visit and the comment, Jackie. I think the birds are fascinating animals.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on August 27, 2018:

So beautiful and fascinating. Knowing to bring water to cool their eggs, I just cannot get over that. I love this! Thank you, Linda!

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