The shoebill is an endangered bird which usually lives in large swamps from Sudan to Zamibia. It can also be found in tropical east Africa. The bird is also known as shoe-billed stork or whalehead, and it derives its name from its big shoe-shaped beak. The shoebill can be easily identified based on this feature, but when it’s in flight, it can be mistaken for a stork or a condor. This bird is known from the ancient times, with both Egyptians and Arabs mentioning it. However, it didn’t start being observed by the scientific community until the 19th Century. During the past few years, the shoebill has been very vulnerable and now it’s classified as an endangered species.
The shoebill can be considered a relatively tall bird, and its typical height ranges from 110 to 140 cm (43 to 55 inches). It weighs 4 to 7 kg and the males are usually heavier than the females. This bird can be mainly identified based on its enormous beak, with its irregular grey color. The feathering of the shoebill is also distinctive. An adult bird will have a blue-grey plumage and its flight-feathers are usually grey. Its legs are incredibly long, and this helps the shoebill hunt while standing on aquatic vegetation. The bird can also be identified by its flight pattern. Its wings are held flat when hovering and it flies with its neck retracted.
2. Endangered Status
The shoebill is currently at the limit of extinction, mostly caused by the destruction of their natural habitat. People are turning their swamp habitat into farmland, leaving these birds without shelter and food. Today, the shoebill population is estimated at between 5000 and 8000 and is constantly declining. They can be found in big numbers in Congo, Zamibia and on the wetlands of Tanzania. The BirdLife International Association classified the shoebill as a vulnerable species. The main threats to this bird are destruction of natural habitat, hunting and disturbance.
Shoebills are mostly classified as piscivorous birds but they also hunt a wide range of wetland vertebrates. It mainly feeds on marbled lungfish, Senegal bichir or catfish. They also feed on wetland specimens like water snakes, frogs, Nile monitors or even baby crocodiles. Sometimes, the shoebills are seen hunting snails, turtles or rodents. Considering their enormous beak, they can hunt even larger prey. Their “hunting strategy” mainly consists of standing above the water and waiting for its prey to get in range. When its target is nearby, the bird sinks into the water and simply picks it up with a fast move.
The Shoebill normally comes out from its nest at night when it goes hunting. It usually swallows its prey and then drinks some water. However, if it has babies, the female will usually shred its prey into small pieces and carry it to the nest. Besides the breeding season, the shoebill is a solitary bird. However, they often gather in big groups when the food resources are concentrated in a certain area. The birds are very territorial and they usually set their perimeter at several square miles from their nest. They will usually attack any other animal or bird that crosses their territory. The shoebill is not a migratory bird and it usually moves depending on the available food resources.
The future of the shoebill is uncertain. The continuous destruction of their natural habitat is expected to drastically diminish their number in the following years. However, the Zambian, Tanzanian and Ugandan government took a series of measures in order to protect these birds. The Tanzanian Moyokosi site hosts a few hundreds individuals in a natural reservation type of habitat. The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands has the sole purpose of preserving their natural habitat. Uganda values these birds, as they are an important attraction for ecotourism. The injured birds or the ones confiscated from the trappers are usually taken to the Kampala Zoo.
The shoebill is a very unusual and special type of bird. Without special efforts from the authorities, this bird might become extinct in a matter of years. That’s why it’s important to raise awareness and make people understand the importance of these birds and not to hunt them either.