The shoebill is a large, solitary bird living in central Africa. Due to the large size of its head, this animal is also called the “whalehead,” a name that is a translation of this bird’s genus “Balaeniceps.” The shoebill’s species name is “rex,” meaning “king.” so the shoebill’s scientific name literally means “king whalehead.” This bird is also called the shoebill stork, even though it is not a stork. Because there are so few birds like this one, the shoebill has its own family and sometimes even its own order in classification systems! These birds are so different than all others that it is almost impossible to mistake them for a different species. This uniqueness definitely shows God’s creativity in creating animals. If you can’t tell from the picture, the shoe-like bill ends in a pointy hook that can be used for grasping prey so it won’t get away or for ripping off more easily manageable pieces of meat. Male and female shoebills look pretty much the same: gray colored feathers with a huge light pink to gray colored bill. Watch a short video of these animals here.
These large birds can stand up to five feet (150 cm) tall and have a beak tip to tail tip length of about four feet (120 cm). For birds, they are heavy, weighing around fifteen pounds (7 kg). Males are larger than females and therefore have longer bills. These bills can reach almost one foot (30 cm) long with a width of up to eight inches (20 cm), but they are normally smaller. This makes these birds have the largest beaks of any bird!
The shoebill’s diet consists of a variety of animals including fish, lizards, turtles, frogs, rats, and young crocodiles and waterfowl. These birds have a special strategy for catching their favorite food: lungfish. Because these fish have both lungs and gills, they can live in water that has less oxygen than most fish need to survive. They will just come to the surface when they need a breath and breathe with their lungs. The shoebill will stand by pools of water with less oxygen and will be almost perfectly still. When a lungfish comes up for a breath, the shoebill quickly strikes and eats its prey. Although the prey is normally cut in half before being eaten, it is sometimes eaten whole. Most of a shoebill’s hunting is done at night.
Shoebills, although they are normally quiet, make a few noises, vocal and nonvocal. Their one nonvocal noise is a beak clap, similar to the jaw clap of the american alligator. They have two vocal noises, one made by young, and the other made by adults. The adults sometimes make a mewing noise while at their nest and the nestlings can make a noise that sounds like a hiccup.
These large birds prefer living in swamps, marshes, or other areas with a lot of freshwater. Because of all of the water, there is not much land in these areas, and if no land can be found, the shoebills nest on the large rafts of vegetation, preferably papyrus. These floating platforms are sturdy enough to support large animals or even humans!
Shoebills time their mating season so it starts at the beginning of the dry season in order to prevent the nests from flooding. In between the ages of three and four years, the young shoebills start mating. Shoebills usually only come together for mating and taking care of young. From one to three eggs, normally two, are laid in a nest that can be around three feet (one meter) in diameter. The eggs are laid a few days apart from each other. During hot times of the year/day, the parents will take beak-fulls of water and dump them on the eggs to keep them cool.
After an incubation period of around thirty days, the chick hatch about five days apart from each other. The older is given the most food and protection, and the younger chick is used as a backup in case the older chick dies. Sometimes the older chick will even bully the younger one. The same method for cooling off eggs is used on chicks also, but normally only on the older and bigger one. Not until the age of two and one half months can the chicks stand up, and only one month later they can start catching their own food. Despite this, the parents still feed their young for a while longer. If lucky, a shoebill stork can live for up to 36 years in captivity. Their lifespan in the wild is not known.
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- Animal: The Definitive Visual Guide. David Burnie and Don E. Wilson, Smithsonian Institution, ISBN: 978-0-7566-6002-4
- Complete Birds of the World. Tim Harris, National Geographic, ISBN: 978‑1‑4262‑0419‑7
- Shoebill – Hans Hillewaert
- Shoebill range – Wilhelm Klave
- Mystery animal – Uwe Kils