“Depending on your perspective, a shoebill either has the same goofy charm as the long-lost dodo or it looks like it might go on the attack any moment.”
– National Geographic
The shoebill is a bird of various names including such incredible titles as The Whale Headed King and King of the Swamps, but also the less prestigious Boat Bill or Bog Bird. It’s scientific name, Balaeniceps Rex, deconstructs to ballaena (whale), caput (head), rex (king). The extremes in their names, and the take on them from National Geographic suggests a divise nature akin to marmite; you love it or you hate it.
With their prehistoric appearance, they are often described as living dinosaurs. More so that other birds which are less obviously descended from dinosaurs. They stand at an impressive 5 foot, with an 8 foot wingspan and their bill is thought to have the biggest circumference of all birds. The centring of their bill in their name is not surprising when you see a shoebill – the clog shaped, razor edged bill can be up to 9 inches long and is so big that babies have trouble standing because of the imbalance.
In addition to being tall, with a long wingspan, they have comically long legs and long toes (their middle toe can be up to 18cm long!). As they live in marshy wetlands, having longer limbs helps to spread weight and enables them to walk more steadily on unpredictable territory. The shoebill could be suggesting that you too spread your weight when facing unpredictability.
Accompanying their large bill is a large head with large eyes that come with a piercing stare. Blinking infrequently gives them an unnerving appearance, combined with their ancient appearance. Their stare actually serves an important function, helping them to catch their prey with about a 60% success rate. They eat lungfish, catfish and even baby crocodiles and, standing perfectly still for hours until prey appears, they attack with speed and ferocity, using their sharp hooked bill as a weapon. The bill holds the fish, allowing no escape.
The wetlands they inhabit are in Eastern Africa and tend to be areas of flood plain with papyrus and reedbeds. As they need fish to come close to the surface, they also frequent areas of poorly oxygenated water; lungfish can breathe through lungs (hence the name!) so will head up to take a breath (Animal Diversity).
Before we move onto mating and raising chicks, there’s just a few other things it’s good to know about the shoebill;
- They can take off near vertically and their long wings means they don’t have to flap them as often as many birds
- They aren’t very vocal, but when they do greet other shoebills, they use bill clattering which has been described as sounding like a machine gun or a jackhammer
- Shoebills are in a taxonomic family of their own and are not, as some people assume, storks; in fact their closest relatives are pelicans
- They defecate on their legs to keep themselves cool; heat from the warm blood in their legs works to evaporate the liquid poo and the result is that cooler blood circulates back through the bird
They are generally solitary, with the exception of when they are breeding, and even then, the male and female prefer to occupy opposite ends of their shared territory. This feels like sharing is a stretch; even when they want or need to share an area, it is done with a sort of resentment and reluctance. Despite that, they do form pair bonds for the breeding season (although no longer than they have to!), a reminder that sometimes, you do need to engage in team work, even if your tendency is to march on alone.
Strangely, given their seeming distaste for company, both parents participate in every aspect of nest building, incubation and parenting. This includes something called egg-watering, where adults pour a mouthful of water of the nest, this helps to keep the eggs cool. They also place wet grass around the eggs, rolling and turning the eggs over. This all feels very caring and resourceful of the parents, and yet, we shall now see, the offspring are somewhat more viscious…
There are between one and three eggs and once hatched, the chicks start life highly reliant on their parents for food and water. This is likely a key factor in the extreme sibling rivalry between the chicks. The dominating chick (generally the one born first) will bully and torment the submissive chick. This leads to the dominant chick getting more food and water, so they grow faster and are healthier. This can result in a parent making a “choice” to neglect one of their chicks. This is very hard to hear about but if we think about resource management it makes sense; if you haven’t got enough to keep two chicks alive and healthy then neglecting one means the other is more likely to make it to adulthood and to breeding, that is to say, to continue the genetic line.
They have been considered a bad omen with beliefs such as if you see one when fishing, you’ll not catch much and yet this assumption led to protection; because they were seen as bad luck, people were afraid to kill them.
This contrariness is seen again when we consider that despite being terrifying and bad luck, they have also been beloved and appeared in ancient Egyptian artwork; again a bit like marmite…!