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Interesting facts about the shoebill

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We found 21 interesting facts about shoebill

A bird with a prehistoric appearance

The whalebill is a large African bird that lives in wetlands, far from human habitation.

The characteristic large massive beak, reminiscent of a wooden shoe, makes its image very menacing. It happens that people are afraid of it, although in fact it is a gentle bird that can greet people beautifully by bowing its head, or react in this way when a person bows its head. 

In addition to their characteristic appearance, these birds are known for another rare feature - the young of this species kill their weaker brothers in order to get rid of food competition. We call this phenomenon Cainism.


Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex) is a species of bird from the shoebill family (Balaenicipitidae).

He is the only representative of this family.


This species was first scientifically described in 1850 by the English ornithologist John Gould.

Shoebills were originally classified as storks (Ciconiiformes). However, based on anatomical similarities, it was found that shoebills are closer to Pelecaniformes (Pelecanidae) - DNA tests clearly confirmed their belonging to the order Pelecaniformes.


Shoebills are endemic to Africa.

They live mainly in eastern and tropical Africa. They are found from South Sudan and southwestern Ethiopia through Uganda to southeastern Congo and northern Zambia. The largest number of shoebills are found in Sudan and Zambia. Outside the breeding season, these birds can also be seen in the Central African Republic.


The whalebill is not a migratory bird; it only moves periodically due to the availability of food.

The reason for the movement of these birds is also human disturbance of their natural habitat.


The natural habitat of the shoebill is vast areas covered with freshwater swamps, as well as areas located near rivers and lakes.

These birds prefer areas with varied vegetation, especially areas with papyrus, reeds and cattails. Shoebills sometimes feed in rice fields in Sudan and other flooded plantations. They like to be in water with low oxygen levels because it is easier for them to hunt fish swimming just below the surface of the water.


Shoebills are feeding specialists.

They hunt only a certain type of animal - lungfish with a length of 15 to 50 cm and a weight of about 500 g. Thanks to this, these birds avoid competition. Sometimes, when the opportunity arises, they also hunt frogs, young crocodiles, turtles, small mammals and shellfish. They will not despise carrion either.


These birds have a special hunting strategy.

They know the lake or other body of water they are moving through well, so they know where the fish are at a given time of day. The whalebill patiently makes its way through the water or stands calmly and waits for a fish to swim up to it. When the fish approaches, the bird rushes at it, spreading its wings. The suddenly spread wings stun the fish for a moment, and the shoebill catches it, crushes it with its powerful beak and swallows it.


They usually hunt alone.

A larger number of game birds can be observed only when the reservoir dries up and only a small pond remains full of caught fish.


The whalebill is a bird with a very distinctive appearance.

The most characteristic part of its body is its thick, wide beak, adapted for searching for food in the mud. This beak looks like a wooden shoe. It has an elongated, wide shape and a hooked end, which makes it easier to catch slippery food. The beak color is yellowish with small, darker spots.


The whalebill looks like a stork.

Its body is massive, and its legs are long and thin. The neck is thin and although it seems long, it is actually shorter than that of other wading birds (heron, crane).


The eyes of these birds are relatively large and pushed forward, giving Shoebills better three-dimensional vision.

The eyes are yellowish or gray-white.


The plumage of the birds is gray-blue with a greenish tint.

The back and neck are covered with gray-blue feathers with a greenish tint, the lower part of the body is usually lighter. The head is usually darker than the rest of the body, and has a tuft of protruding feathers at the back.


Shoebills have sexual dimorphism.

Males are larger and have longer and more massive beaks.


The whalebill is a large bird.

Its body length (from tail to beak) is from 100 to 140 cm.

The height of the bird at the withers is from 110 to 140 cm, although there are specimens reaching up to 150 cm.

Wingspan from 230 to 260 cm.

Weight: from 4 to 7 kg, with males weighing on average 5,5 kg and females weighing on average 4,9 kg.


They lead a solitary lifestyle.

They only gather in loose groups when food is scarce and they are forced to feed side by side. During the breeding season, they form monogamous pairs, building a nest together, incubating eggs and caring for offspring.

They are nocturnal.


Shoebills build nests in the shape of a flat mound.

It is usually found on floating vegetation or on grass on land, in a place inaccessible to predators.

The female lays 1–2 eggs, the incubation period is 30 days. After hatching, the parents provide them with food up to 6 times a day. The chicks are fully covered with feathers only after 60 days, and they acquire the ability to fly approximately 112 days after hatching. The full breeding period is 140-145 days, only then do the young leave the nest, although they return to it for a while to rest. The juveniles initially feed on partially digested food, but over time they eat the whole fish.


The phenomenon of cainism is found among shoebills.

It involves the destruction of weaker individuals by stronger siblings to eliminate food competition. When the parents of the hatched shoebill chicks move away from the nest in search of food, the stronger individual begins to attack its brother, pecking out its feathers and even injuring it. After returning to the nest, the parents leave the stronger individual there, the weaker one is removed and she has to fend for herself - most often she does not survive.

This behavior is also observed in some species of birds of prey, including the lesser spotted eagle, greater spotted eagle, white-tailed eagle and kestrel.

Similar behavior is observed in some species of fish, for example. prenatal cannibalism.


Whalebills are quiet birds; sometimes you can hear their characteristic clattering sound, just like storks.

They knock when they feel threatened or to welcome them into the nest.

When hunting, the main senses these birds use are sight and hearing.

To increase their field of vision, shoebills hold their heads almost vertically, parallel to their chests - sometimes giving the impression of a standing person.


They are an endangered species.

The global population of shoebills in 2002 was estimated at 5000–8000 individuals. Their population is under threat as a result of human activities (excessive irrigation, grass burning, grazing, fishing, drainage of swamps, etc.). Moreover, these birds are caught for food purposes. The eggs and chicks are intended for consumption or sale to zoos and collectors.


Shoebills are one of the most expensive birds purchased for zoos.

The price of one individual is from 10 to 20 thousand dollars. Unfortunately, these birds do not breed in captivity.


Drawings of shoebills have been found in Egyptian tombs and date back to around 3500 BC.

Hunting these birds is prohibited among some African tribes. They are also the subject of superstitions - one of which states that just mentioning the name of this bird while on a boat can cause a storm.

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