by Piter Kehoma Boll
When I first saw a picture of this bird, many years ago, my first thought was that it could not be real. It looked like a character of an old Hanna-Barbera animation and not like a real creature.
The shoebill (Balaeniceps rex), also known as whalehead or shoe-billed stork, is a large African bird originally thought to be closely related to the true storks, as its body somewhat resembles that of a stork. However, molecular studies concluded it to be more closely related to pelicans, as well as to herons and ibises (which previously were also considered to be closer to storks!).
As one can easily notice, the name shoebill comes from the bird’s massive bill. The pointed upper jaw and the sharp edges of the bill help the shoebill to capture prey and tear them to pieces. The most frequent prey are fish, but it may also consume frogs, snakes, small monitors and crocodiles, as well as, more rarely, turtles, rodents and small birds.With a height typically between 110 and 140 cm, but able to reach 150, the shoebill is a tall bird. Its wingspan is also big, reaching up to 260 cm.
The shoebills are solitary birds and even in crowded areas they avoid to stay to close to each other. They apparently love hippos, as the disturbance that these large beasts create in water help them to obtain food by forcing fish to the surface.
The IUCN lists the shoebill as ‘vulnerable’ and its major threats include habitat destruction and hunting. Currently there are about 5,000 to 8,000 individuals with a disconnected distribution along river basins in sub-Saharan Africa.
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John, J. R. M.; Nahonyo, C. L.; Lee, W. S.; Msuya, C. A. 2013. Observations on nesting of shoebill Balaeniceps rex and wattled crane Bugeranus carunculatus in Malagarasi wetlands, western Tanzania. African Journal of Ecology, 51(1): 184-187. DOI: 10.1111/aje.12023
Wikipedia. Shoebill. Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoebill>. Access on January 13, 2016.
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