This huge, grey waterbird, also known as a whale-headed stork, derives its name Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex), from its massive bill, which resembles a traditional Dutch clog, with a sharp nail-like hook on the end.
Once classified with storks in the order Ciconiiformes, more recent DNA studies have suggested that it belongs alongside pelicans in the order Pelicaniformes. Whatever its taxonomic affinities, this elusive swamp dweller remains one of Africa’s most coveted ticks for birders – the swamps of Uganda and Zambia’s Bangweulu region offering perhaps the best chance of a sighting.
- A shoebill’s broad wings may span up to 2.5 metres from tip to tip. Its flapping rate of approximately 150 flaps per minute is among the slowest of any bird.
- Shoebills are specialist predators of lungfish. Their distribution through tropical East Africa seems to coincide with the availability of these fish – and also with papyrus reed beds, which is their preferred nesting habitat.
- A shoebill often benefit from living alongside hippos. These huge amphibious mammals bulldoze channels through papyrus swamps, allowing shoebills access to otherwise inaccessible feeding areas. They also force fish to the surface, making them easier for the bird to capture.
- Shoebills take a wide variety of prey in addition to fish, including frogs, snails, water snakes, turtles, waterbirds and baby crocodiles. There is even an unconfirmed report of shoebills feeding on a baby lechwe antelope.
- A shoebill may hatch two or more chicks, but seldom raise more than one. Stronger chicks will bully their weaker siblings, depriving them of food and sometimes killing them outright. This brutal practice also occurs among eagles. The younger chicks are a form of insurance: back-ups in case the eldest fails to survive.