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Consider: the Shoebill

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

Africa is home to some of the most badass animals on the planet. From the titanic African elephant to the hyena with its bone-splintering jaws, animals in Africa possess adaptations found nowhere else in the world. Yet, for all of the wonderful animals that inhabit Africa, we tend to focus most on those native to the savannah. You may have an image in your head of wide grassy plains inhabited by prides of lions, crashes of rhinos, dazzles of zebras (yes, that is the correct collective noun for zebras). This is a fair image, as 65% of Africa is covered by savannah, but many other African ecosystems boast the same array of incredible animals that the savannahs do. Gorillas prowl the jungle understories of Western Africa, addaxes and dromedary camels wander the vast Sahara, leopards stalk Barbary macaques across the rugged foothills of the Atlas Mountains in Algeria.

The subject of this article inhabits yet another overlooked African ecosystem—the papyrus swamps and seasonal floodplains of the White Nile, known in some areas as the Sudd. These vast wetlands cover much of eastern Central Africa, from South Sudan down to Tanzania, and are home to creatures unlike any other on the planet. They are tremendous hunters of incredible patience, accuracy, and brutality. Living in an extreme environment, they have developed unique tactics for dealing with the searing heat and constant flooding of their ecosystems. And to top it all off, they look like Muppets from Hell. Consider: the Shoebill. Balaeniceps rex.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Very few animals can truly live up to having the species name “rex”, but shoebills certainly do. These massive water birds can grow up to 1.5 meters tall (4.5 feet) with a nearly 2.5 meter (8 foot) wingspan. Despite being as tall as a middle schooler with a larger wingspan than Shaquille O’Neal's, shoebills are quite lightweight, only weighing about 7 kilograms (15 pounds) at their heaviest due to their hollow bones and other weight-saving physiology. They have long legs and splayed toes to help them keep their bodies above the water and maintain balance in the often unstable muddy terrain of their habitats. Atop their heads, they have tremendous, forward-facing blue or yellow eyes which give them excellent binocular vision and also make them look like they could play bass for the animatronic band at the world’s worst Chuck E. Cheese. Despite being called shoe-billed storks, shoebills actually are most closely related to herons and pelicans. Like those birds, shoebills fly with their necks retracted and their chests are covered in a special feather type known as powder down, which creates a keratin dust that waterproofs their feathers.

When you first looked at this bird, though, you probably didn’t think about its legs or its neck or its powdery feathers. Your first thought was almost certainly “what the hell is that beak?!” No one could fault you for that either— that beak truly earns shoebills their name. The bill is the third longest of any bird, with some growing up to18 centimeters (7 inches). This bill is no flimsy needle like a heron or stork bill, though—shoebill beaks are thick and clog-shaped, less of a needle and more of a sledgehammer. The bill's edge is razor-sharp, and tipped with a hook on the top mandible for good measure. These unique bills have a variety of purposes; they are used for scooping up water, communicating, and hunting. An interesting side effect of living in Equatorial Africa is that eggs and chicks are in more danger of overheating than they are of freezing, so shoebills use their massive beaks to scoop and pour water over their young to cool them off. In the dry season, this has to be done 4 to 5 times a day or else the blazing sun will reduce their chicks to exotic chicken nuggets. By clapping their jaws together, shoebills can make a clattering call that sounds so much like the noise the Predator makes that I’m honestly wondering if the shoebill was its inspiration. This sound, combined with body language and other queues, allow shoebills to communicate with other members of their species.

The shoebill’s wide beak, showcased from the front here, is an impeccable murder weapon, capable of capturing or obliterating its prey in a single strike. (Image Source: Shutterstock)

But how do these murder puppets hunt, and what kind of gnarly damage can that bill do? Despite their outlandish appearance, shoebills are potent ambush hunters, using a combination of keen eyesight and patience to attack their prey at the surface of the water. Shoebills love to eat lungfish (a species of fish that can breathe air), but they aren’t picky. Frogs, fish, turtles, monitor lizards, and even baby crocodiles can all find themselves on the wrong end of that tremendous beak. Shoebills hunt in shallow, slow-moving water at the edges of lakes and the floodplains of rivers. They prefer oxygen-poor water, as this forces fish to the surface to breathe. Once they’ve found the right spot, shoebills will sit completely motionless for hours at a time, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. While obvious-looking to us, their stillness makes shoebills very difficult for their prey beneath the water to spot.

Once shoebills have zeroed in on their prey and the moment has come, they strike with a fury. Shoebills feed in a method known as “collapse feeding”, where they put the full force of their body weight into a single beak-first strike, crashing down suddenly and with passion. If their piledriver-like bills don’t obliterate their prey in one hit, shoebills scoop them up pelican-style. Then, positioning everything just right, they use the sharp edges of their beaks to decapitate their prey with an efficiency that would make Maximilien Robespierre shed tears of joy. As one could imagine, the target doesn’t fight back much after having its head removed, and shoebills gulp the remaining body down without a struggle.

Shoebills are aggressively antisocial animals. While other birds may flock together or at least hunt in pairs, shoebills only hunt alone, with breeding pairs even keeping to opposite ends of their shared territory. A shoebill will hardly see another member of its species except to mate, but when they do see each other, the result generally isn’t pretty. Shoebills protect their hunting spots doggedly and have no problem fighting to the death other members of their species over territory. When they do encounter each other, shoebills will use that same collapse strike they use while hunting to royally fuck each other up. Generally before a lethal blow can be landed, one shoebill will bow to the other to show submission and admit defeat.

Shoebills won’t even share territory with their own siblings in the nest, meaning that they have just about the most metal childhood imaginable. A shoebill mating pair will lay one to three eggs at the start of the dry season, each egg about five days apart. They nest on massive mounds of plant material built atop deep swamp water to prevent land predators from reaching the eggs. The chicks hatch in 150 days and actually lack the distinctive bill shape, making them look disappointingly like normal birds and not like the possessed boom mics I’d hoped for. Not long after being born, though, the violence begins. Shoebill chicks will fight over their parents’ resources and have no problem killing their own siblings to ensure they acquire all of the food the parents bring.

Like an ancient Egyptian royal family, the chicks cheat, rob, and kill each other until only one chick survives to leave the nest as an adult. Sometimes, the chicks mortally wound each other to the point that none of them survive, and that year’s breeding season is just a bust. Compare this to the Great Blue Heron, a distant relative of the shoebill which is one of the most plentiful birds in North America. Great Blue Herons lay 2-6 eggs each year and nest in rookeries where the eggs can be protected by all of the members of the group, allowing many of them to survive. This goes a long way in explaining why shoebills are so rare compared to other, similar species around the world.

Baby shoebills don’t possess the same gnarly bills or gigantic eyes as their parents (I know, I’m disappointed too). Over the course of the next few weeks, these two adorable babies will beat the shit out of each other until only one survives to grow to adulthood. (Image credit: Adventure Uganda Safari).

Shoebills have a lot of traits that make them vulnerable to extinction in the human-centered world. They are naturally-rare, live in specific environments requiring timely seasonal rainfall, look bizarre enough to want in a private zoo, and are easily scared by the presence of humans in their environment (even though almost all humans I know would turn tail and run if they saw one of these birds approach). They are currently classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN, though the most accurate population readings show there to only be 5,000 - 8,000 shoebills left in the wild.

Habitat destruction due to burning poses the largest threat to shoebills. Farmers in many areas where shoebills live will intentionally burn down marshland in order to turn it into pasture for livestock grazing. Shoebills have been found dead in the wreckage after these fires. Climate change, too, has eaten away at shoebill habitats. Shoebills rely on seasonal floodplains to find suitable hunting grounds, and climate change has majorly destabilized the weather patterns in Central Africa, leading to desertification. In years when the rainy season is late, the shallow edges of lakes and other habitats suitable for shoebills dry up, restricting the animal’s habitat. Shoebills also require the flooding provided by seasonal rains to build their floating nests. Without these seasonal rains, shoebill nests typically collapse on themselves and they become much less protected from land predators. A combination of climate change and habitat burning in the last 25 years has destroyed 40% of the wetlands in Uganda, one of the countries with the largest number of shoebills. Because shoebills live so far apart from one another, they are very difficult for conservationists to find, and as such, their territories are largely left out of protected bird reserves.

More direct human contact also threatens the shoebill. Shoebills get very nervous around humans and will often flee when human fishermen draw near. This can restrict the amount of time shoebills have to hunt or completely scare the birds out of the territory. Those shoebills who do not flee at the first sight of a human often find themselves the set piece of an eccentric billionaire’s private zoo. Because they look so bizarre, many wealthy collectors will have live shoebills captured out of the wild and put into private zoos for their own entertainment. Under the guise of eco-tourists, poachers will often offer exorbitant payments to local indigenous people to assist in hunting the birds down. This provides much-needed wealth to local communities, as many of these indigenous people live at or below the poverty line, but also has decimated a species which was already under pressure from severe habitat destruction.

Much work has gone into conserving shoebills, but despite this, their numbers in the wild continue to decline. The steps taken by conservation biologists so far have involved identifying where the animals actually live in order to add their ranges to pre-existing wildlife preserves. Finding the hunting sites of a sparsely-populated bird across swamps that extend through nine countries is hard work, made even harder by how much droughts and flooding constantly change the landscape. Like with many other conservation projects around the world, indigenous knowledge has been invaluable to identifying and protecting shoebill habitats. Many indigenous people have been hired to help find where shoebills live in order to mitigate the economic losses they face when the poachers leave.

Shoebills are otherworldly-looking creatures. From the time they are born, they live violent, solitary lives, avoiding others of their own kind and spending much of their time ambushing fish from above. Yet, there is something charming about shoebills, some emotion I feel when I see them that lies somewhere between fear and delight. Their enormous eyes and derpy faces make them kind of adorable, while at the same time their massive beaks and savage lifestyle make me want to look over my shoulder to make sure there isn’t one stalking me from the shadows. Shoebills remind me of a Charles Darwin quote from “The Origin of Species”: “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.” Great pressures have shaped shoebill evolution, turning them into unique creatures specifically-suited to the environments they call home. Shoebills stand as a testament to just how unique living things can become in an effort to adapt to their environment.

The harm which humans have caused to shoebills is great, but it is also conquerable, and there are clear steps conservationists can take to protect them. By enforcing bans on poaching, working around the world to mitigate the effects of climate change, and identifying what areas need to be protected as shoebill hunting grounds, we can keep this bizarre and wonderful creature around to terrorize the Sudd for years to come.

If you want to help the Shoebill and many other unique and amazing endangered species, consider making a donation to the Zoological Society of London's EDGE of Existence Program. This amazing program focuses on giving conservation attention to genetically-unique and overlooked species, and the shoebill is one of their focal species. I am so thankful for the work that they do, and I hope you'll join me in supporting them.

A shoebill in flight with wings spread, looking away from the camera.
Image Credit: Johannes Bahrdt, under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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