LifecycleAlthough given to nesting in remote spots, the shoebill is one of the most distinctive birds of African wetlands. Its mighty bill is a specialized weapon for hunting in the water.
HabitatIn northeastern Africa, the shoebill frequents the Sudd, a 52,000-sq. mile swamp. The bird is most often seen in flooded regions where the deep, sluggish waters carry large quantities of fish toward the great lakes of Victoria and Tanganyika.
In Uganda, the shoebill is found on marshy lake margins thick with reeds, papyrus and grasses. The bird uses this vegetation for nesting material and to conceal its vast shadow from the fish below. It is often most numerous in areas where the water has a low oxygen level — lungfish, a favorite food, then must surface more often, making the shoebill’s foraging a lot easier
The shoebill is found in marshes and swamps.
• The shoebill follows the sitatunga, an aquatic antelope; it stirs up lungfish, the bird’s favorite food, as it walks.
• The shoebill shares with the storks the habit of defecating on its legs on hot days. This creates cooling by evaporation.
Food & huntingFish dominate the shoebill’s diet; it also hunts frogs, lizards, turtles and snakes, as well as the odd waterbird or young crocodile.
Feeding starts by late morning. Shoebills may fish near each other, but do not hunt communally. Their method is spectacular but often unsuccessful, obliging the bird to move a few yards and try again.
conservationThe IUCN (World Conservation Union) has declared the shoebill a species of special concern because of its restricted range in Africa and poorly understood biology. The population is thought to be about 11,000, with roughly half occurring in the Sudd.This region is being drained, along with other wetlands, to create land for crop production. Cattle farmers are burning marshes, using the land for their stock. Fishermen disturb the bird during its breeding season, and juveniles are illegally collected for zoos.
BreedingThe shoebill adapts its breeding behavior to suit the movements of floodwaters. By mating in the dry season, the shoebill ensures its young a supply of lungfish, which are trapped in dwindling pools.
The shoebill lays two or three chalky-white eggs on a bulky mound of aquatic plants trampled on floating marshy vegetation. The breeding pair continually adds fresh plant material to the nest, which may become so heavy that it sinks slowly into the marsh. Although breeding pairs may nest close to one another they never form a social colony.
The parents dutifully tend their silvery-gray, downy hatchlings, supplying them with prechewed fish and dousing them with billfulls of cooling water on hot days. The chicks learn to handle fish and eat them head first. Each juvenile leaves the nest at 13 weeks, but still cannot fly and relies on its parents for another few weeks. Normally only one juvenile fledges from each brood.
Both parents incubate the eggs and rear the young.
fitting the bill
When the shoebill hunts, it uses various tactics: periods spent standing motionless alternate with a stealthy stalk.
The bird attacks a catfish in a stand of reeds, toppling forward as it thrusts out its bill.
The messy hunter skillfully empties water and plant matter from its bill while keeping a firm grip on the prize.
After a successful strike, the shoebill takes a drink and then moves to another undisturbed site.
BehaviorThe shoebill has a solitary, sedentary nature. Even breeding pairs seldom feed alongside each other; each one’s territory may extend a few miles.
The shoebill is sometimes forced by droughts to seek new food sources. This heavy bird is, however, a reluctant flier because it depends on thermals (warm air currents) on which to soar: In flight it-draws its neck back, pelican-style, to bring the mighty bill closer to the body’s center of gravity. Usually quiet, the bird defends its nest with vigor, clapping its bill loudly and even leaping onto the back of an intruding shoebill.
ShoebillWith stiltlike legs and splayed feet, the shoebill can wade in shallow water, or stand on floating vegetation, ready to strike with its extraordinary bill.
Creature comparisonsAt 20″ long, the hamerkop (Scopus umbretta) is dwarfed by the shoebill. It has pale-brown plumage, and the back of its head sports a crest that gives rise to its name, an Afrikaans word meaning “hammerhead.” Like-the shoebill, the hamerkop is a waterbird. Its slender bill enables it to trap a varied diet from frogs to fish and small invertebrates.The hamerkop’s bill has a tiny hook at the tip of the upper mandible, helping it pick up smaller victims and rinse them in water before eating. Although much smaller than the shoebill, the hamerkop builds one of the world’s largest nests, creating a structure with an average depth of 5′ and weighing up to 100 times more than the bird. Hamerkop
RELATED SPECIES• The shoebill is the sole member of its genus, ‘ Balaeniceps, and the only species in its family, the Balaenicipitidae. Although DNA analysis shows it to be related to pelicans, it has been thought to be most closely related to storks and herons. With its long legs and neck, it resembles a bulky stork but, unlike storks or herons, it seldom perches in trees, and nests on the ground.’