Shoebill: Africa's Giant, Weird Prehistoric-Looking Bird

There are some weird and wacky creatures out in the animal kingdom, from immortal jellyfish to mites that live on our eyelashes. However, there is no species so stern-looking and intimidating as the shoebill.

These strange birds have captured the imagination of the internet due to their terrifying expression, as their front-facing eyes appear to be staring unnervingly behind their enormous 5-inch wide bills.

shoebill bird
A shoebill in Pairi Daiza animal park in Brugelette, western Belgium, on August 15, 2019 (left) and a stock image of a shoebill opening its wide mouth (right). iStock / Getty Images Plus / PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP via Getty Images)

Shoebill Size and Height

Shoebills, also known as the whalebill or by its scientific name Balaeniceps rex, are large water birds with huge paddle-like bills that open wide to reveal their huge mouths. They stand between 3.5 and 5 feet tall, weigh between 11 and 13 pounds, and can live for up to 50 years in captivity. When their wings are fully extended, they can measure up to eight feet across.

They are found across the swamps of tropical East Africa, ranging between South Sudan to Zambia.

"They have long legs, because like for example storks and herons, they sometimes wade through water to catch their prey," Ralf Mullers, an ecology lecturer at Van Hall Larenstein in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, told Newsweek.

"With long legs it allows the species to move into deeper water, thus avoiding competition with other species. Also, long thin legs could look like reeds, a strategy to trick prey into moving closer. also, for moving in higher vegetation, and through reeds and papyrus, long legs are very helpful. As mentioned above, the shoebill specializes in large prey, so they co-evolved themselves as well, becoming larger and larger. Large birds can eat large prey."

shoebill wingspan
Stock image of a shoebill showing its massive wingspan. iStock / Getty Images Plus

Shoebills hunt by staying very still, keeping a watchful eye out for any prey. Unnoticed by their unlucky victim, the shoebill will then lunge onto the prey in a hunting technique called "collapsing," as described by National Geographic.

Their usual fare includes several species of lungfish, Tilapia species, and catfish, as well as occasional frogs, lizards, water snakes, baby crocodiles and even rodents and smaller waterfowl.

"The San Diego Zoo's wild animal park had one for many years who stood tall and unmoving on a little island near a restaurant for public viewing. Although solitary, they are very territorial, and ours didn't particularly like any strange keeper (other than his preferred one) trying to feed him, and would angrily chase them with open beak and flapping wings," Lee Hagey, an animal molecular biologist at the University of California, San Diego, told Newsweek.

When Did the Shoebill Evolve?

Shoebills, despite often being called shoebill storks, are not actually storks at all. They are alone in their evolutionary family, with their closest living relatives being the Pelecaniformes order, which emerged around 65 million years ago, towards the end of the Cretaceous period. Other species within this order include the pelicans, which are more distantly related to the shoebills, as well as hammerkop, ibises, spoonbills, herons, egrets and bitterns.

"As in all species, the appearance of the shoebill is a result of natural selection and evolution," Mullers said. "The shoebill is one of the few species that has adapted to the larger prey species. Herons, egrets and storks for example, forage on smaller species, with different techniques."

To be able to catch and swallow large fish, the shoebill needs a large gape, hence the terrifying widening of their bill at the base. This allows them to swallow their prey in one piece, as they do not chew their food.

shoebill eating
Stock image of a shoebill eating its prey. iStock / Getty Images Plus

"Only few other species manage to eat catfish; crocodiles and fish eagles for example. Also, to process the slippery fish, they have a hook at the top of their bill, like many other fish eating birds (e.g. gannets or albatrosses)."

Their stern look is exacerbated by the fact that they have both eyes positioned in the front of their head, unlike most other birds, which have eyes on the sides of their heads.

"This so-called binocular vision helps them to better see depth, an adaptation to hunting for their food. Most predators have binocular vision (e.g. birds of prey, carnivorous mammals) to better judge distance. So again, an adaptation to their way of hunting. The sternness of that look is something that we people associate with eyes in the front," Mullers said.

Shoebill Parenting

Shoebills are also known for what some may consider brutal parenting behaviors, raising only one of their chicks despite hatching multiple eggs, with the spare chicks considered as a sort of backup if the primary chick dies.

"I do not think that shoebills have savage parenting behaviors," Mullers said, adding that such parenting techniques were "a widespread evolutionary strategy to increase the fitness of individuals."

"Many species produce more young than they can rear, for example because there is high predation pressure on the young (Just think of all the little turtles that hatch on a beach and only have a very small chance of making it to the sea. Is that savage of the mother turtle?). Shoebills live in a harsh environment and the second chick basically is a 'back-up plan' for if something might happen with the other chick," Mullers said.

While it may seem unusual, this is actually a reproductive tactic used by several other species, and is a way to prioritize limited resources to give their chosen offspring the best chance of reaching adulthood.

"Many bird species have similar strategies. Some hornbill species, for example, eat their chicks. In times when food availability is low, the mother could actually eat (some of) their chicks in a way of nutrient recycling; the parent will survive and can produce more offspring in the future, thus increasing their long-term fitness," Mullers said.

"Same for the shoebill; if conditions are good, they can actually rear two chicks, as did happen when I studied the shoebills. However, most of the time parents do not manage to rear both chicks and rather than risking both chicks to starve, they will focus on rearing one chick successfully. So the savage ways of the shoebill is actually an evolutionary strategy to increase their fitness."

Threatened Population

These strange creatures are under threat, and are classified as "vulnerable" worldwide by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

"There is great uncertainty about their numbers, as some of the populations are in countries where it is difficult to study and monitor them (South Sudan and Congo). The general consensus is that there are probably between 5,000 and 8,000 adult shoebills left in the wild," Mullers said.

Their main threats are the loss of their habitats, competition and disturbance by people and livestock, fires, and illegal trade.

shoebill looking at camera
Stock image of a shoebill in the wild looking at the camera. iStock / Getty Images Plus

"In most wetlands, fishermen are targeting the same prey species and use the same area. Huge wetlands areas have been lost because humans started using these. Obviously that had an impact on the available habitat for shoebills and their numbers decreased," Mullers said. "As they compete with fishermen for the same prey species, they are considered competition and could be killed by people. Also, even if fishermen do not kill shoebills, they still disturb them when working in the same area, thereby interfering with their foraging and breeding behavior."

Additionally, cattle sometimes trample their nests, and agricultural burning and pollution from the oil industry and tanneries can destroy their habitats.

"In many wetlands, locals burn the reeds in the dry season to get access to the deeper swamps where there they still find water and fish. Shoebill chicks on nests cannot fly away and get killed," Mullers said.

Shoebills are also hunted as food in some places.

"Lastly, because of their appearance, they are highly liked for the illegal trade. Chicks are taken from nests just before fledging and often transported to the Middle East where they end up in private collections."

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