The shoebill stork, also commonly referred to as whalehead, whale head stork, or just shoebill is a large swamp-dwelling bird found in east Africa. Despite what its name suggests, the shoebill is actually closely related to pelicans and herons.
These birds have a very daunting appearance, thanks to their large shoe-like beak and height comparable to humans. However, these birds are not dangerous, avoiding contact with other animals and members of their own species as well.
Size: Length: 39 to 55 in (100 to 140 cm)
Height: 43 to 55 in (110 to 140 cm)
Weight: Male: 12 lb (5.6 kg)Female: 11 lb (4.9 kg)
Wingspan: 7 ft 7 in to 8 ft 6 in (230 to 260 cm)
Body and Coloration: They are tall birds with noticeable huge, bulbous straw-colored bills with erratic greyish markings. Their bills are the third-longest after pelicans and large storks. The upper mandible of the beak is overturned, ending in a sharp nail. Their dark-colored legs are long with enormous feet, with the middle toe reaching up to 7 inches in length. Their neck is short and thick, giving them the support needed to use their bills effectively.
An adult bird has bluish-grey plumage with dark grey flight feathers. The juveniles are initially darker than the adults, with a brownish tinge.
These birds are found throughout central and east Africa, including Botswana, northern Cameroon, eastern Congo, south-western Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, southern Sudan, South Sudan, western Tanzania, Uganda, and northern Zambia.
Shoebills inhabit freshwater bodies with low oxygen and floating vegetation, such as bogs, marshes, and swamps.
Piscivorous by nature, this stork primarily eats bichirs, catfish, lungfish, tilapia, and water snakes. Sometimes they will also hunt frogs, mollusks, monitor lizards, juvenile crocodiles, and turtles. Shoebills will also consume carrion, rodents, snails, and waterfowl on rare occasions or periods of scarcity.
These birds are long-lived, living for more than 35 years.
Shoebills are solitary and are seldom seen in groups, foraging 20m apart from each other even in densely populated areas. Even breeding pairs rarely interact with each other. Only when food is scarce will these storks forage close to each other.
Though these birds are usually silent, they are known to communicate via bill clattering, sounding similar to a machine gun firing. They also whine or “moo” at times. The chicks often make a typical sound when begging for food, sounding similar to human hiccups.
When hunting, the shoebill stays motionless in one spot until they suddenly lurch in a manner referred to as “collapsing”. They pick up water and vegetation, along with their intended prey. These birds expel the excessive items keeping only their quarry, which gets decapacitated before its consumption.
They are capable of flight but are rarely seen doing so, indicating a reluctance to fly. They are some of the slowest birds to ever fly, at 150 flaps per minute, and cover distances of less than 330 to 1,640 ft.
Adult birds have no known natural predators due to their large size and intimidating appearance. Only large, desperately hungry animals like crocodiles attempt to attack them but only do so on rare occasions.
Chicks are sometimes stolen from their nests, but only when the parents aren’t around.
The large bills are the most striking feature of the shoebill, helping it scoop up large prey, which it kills using its beak’s razor-sharp edge.
Their long toes that lack webbing help the shoebill walk on vegetation with ease like the jacana while maintaining their balance using their wings.
Their vision is strong, relying on it entirely for hunting. The presence of the nictitating membrane keeps their eyes moist, also protecting them from dirt and dust.
Shoebills have several ways of cooling themselves, including gular fluttering, i.e., expanding their throat sac to allow greater passage of air and defecating on their legs to keep them from being exposed to heat.
Mating and Reproduction
They are monogamous, forming a solitary pair only when they want to breed. The time for mating varies, though most shoebills begin doing so at the start of the dry season.
The nests tend to be far apart, with only around three of them found per square km. Nests are built on the ground made of floating vegetation and grass, with the parents fiercely protecting the nest.
At the end of the rainy season, 3-5 days apart, the female lays an average of two eggs. Both parents tend to incubate and turn the eggs while keeping them cool with water.
After about an incubation period of a month, the eggs hatch. Only one offspring generally survives long enough to fledge. The stronger, older one is the one to generally survive, doing so by stealing their food, chasing away their sibling, or even killing them.
Fledging occurs at around 105 days, with the young birds becoming capable of flight by 112 days. However, their parents still feed them for a month or more. Young shoebills reach sexual maturity at 3 years of age.
The IUCN lists the shoebill stork as “Vulnerable” or “VU” with the population currently estimated at around 5000 to 8000 individuals. Their population has declined due to habitat degradation and loss caused by agricultural expansion and the construction of structures like buildings and canals. These birds are sometimes illegally captured and sold for trade, as pets, or even consumption.
These birds are very docile around humans and make no threatening or dangerous movements toward them. They will stare intently at anyone approaching close to them and their nests to scare them off.
Sushi, a shoebill living at the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre, allows visitors to approach if they bow before him first.
The prehistoric appearance of these birds has often brought comparisions with dinosaurs.
In the video game The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, shoebill storks are the basis for the partner birds the Loftwing birds.