One of Africa’s most sought after bird species and sitting at the top of many world listers’ wishlist is the fascinating and legendary Shoebill Balaeniceps rex.
The sheer surprise when this prehistoric-looking bird (also sometimes called the whalehead, whale-headed stork, or shoe-billed stork) flies up is an experience that stays with you forever, irrespective of how many world bird species you have on your list or how well travelled you might think you are.
With its massive, highly conspicuous, shoe-like bill, and 140 cm (55 in) height this bird looks like something from the age of the dinosaurs, and is utterly unmistakable. In fact the Shoebill is a bird belonging to the group known as the Pelecaniformes and is actually more closely related to a pelican than a stork.
These birds are found in tropical east Africa in large swamps and marshes from South Sudan to northern Zambia, particularly where there is a mixture of papyrus, reeds, cattails and grasses. The best places to see a Shoebill include Mabamba and Murchison in Uganda, Gambela in Ethiopia and Bangweulu in Zambia.
That large bill helps them catch their favourite prey: Marbled Lungfish. They will also eat other fish (tilapia, catfish and bichir), amphibians, very young crocodiles and water snakes, as well as rodents and small waterfowl.
Shoebills are masters of patience. They will stand in water, large patches of grass, and other hiding places for hours on end. They know that if they wait long enough for the right moment, they will find their next meal. At the right moment, the Shoebill will leap from cover and attack the prey. They lunge forward and with their sharp bill scoop up the creature, devouring it whole. Roughly 60% of their attacks are successful.
The timing of the breeding season is linked to local water levels. Eggs are laid at the end of the rains as the waters start to recede, and chicks fledge in the dry season. Shoebills are solitary nesters, and the nest is a grassy mound, up to 3 m wide, on floating vegetation or a small island, often among dense stands of papyrus. The clutch size is normally two eggs, and incubation takes 30 days. Fledging occurs at about 100 days and usually only one chick survives. Individuals take three to four years to reach reproductive maturity and may live for up to 50 years.
The Shoebill has been classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, with possibly less than 6,000 birds left in the wild. The bird is threatened by hunters, the destruction of their environments by humans, climate change, pollution of river systems and cultural taboos that lead to them being captured by tribes. Many cultures believe that the birds are taboo and bring about bad luck, but seeing one in the wild certainly makes one feel very lucky indeed!
Join one of our Zambia Safaris and Tours to experience this wonderful bird species with us.