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The Distinctive Shoebill Stork Facts | Rwanda Birding 2024

The shoebill stork of Rwanda is sighted at Akagera National Park marshes, located in the eastern regions of the country, through out the year. It is best seen during the months of June to September and December to march, though on occasions due to its elusive kind of nature, forcing birders to dig deep into the swamps to catch glimpse of it. A birder also gets an opportunity to spot other migratory and different wading birds during this period.

The Shoebill Stork, also known as the whale bill and scientifically called  Balaeniceps rex, is a large, unique, prehistoric-looking, long-legged wading bird, a native to East African tropical swamps, that is most sought-after by ornithologists and bird enthusiasts in Africa.

shoebill stork

It derives its name from the unique shape of its bill which looks like a shoe. Because of it’s shoe shaped bill, people from different countries call it different names for example the Arabs call it father of the shoe, others call it a flying shoe, among others.

Because of it’s close stork-like form, it was classified with the storks  although it’s genetic evidence puts it under herons and pelicans.

 Physical Characteristics of a shoebill stork

A shoebill grows up to a height of 150 cm, that’s 5 feet tall and its weight is about 4-7 kilograms (15.4 pounds) with males weighing on average about 5.6kg and are much larger than females which weigh about 4.9 kg on average.

It has a wingspan ranging from 230 to 260 cm (7.5 to 8.5 feet). it’s bill can grow up to 24cm (9.4 inches).the bill has a pale grey color with sharp edges and a hooked tip.

Adult shoebills  have a blue-grey plumage, a lighter underbelly and darker flight feathers. It has long thin dark colored legs of about  21.7 to 25.5 cm.

It’s feet is generally large and webbed and it’s middle toe fairly long reaching up to a length of 16.8 to 18.5 cm. Its neck is fairly short and more thick compared to other long legged wading birds like flamingos, herons and cranes.

Baby shoebills are hatched with a modestly sized silver-grey bill which is noticed to be getting large when the chick is only 23 days old.

Diet of the shoebill stork

Shoebill storks are majorly piscivorous, particularly feeding on lungfish, tilapia, Senegal bichir and catfish but they also prey on a variety of wetland vertebrates some of which include frogs, baby crocodiles, water snake, baby tortoises, Nile monitors, snails, rodents, small waterfowls, among others.

It’s  large sharp-edged bill and a wide gape make it perfectly adapted for catching and holding large and slippery prey.

diet of the shoebill stork

A shoebill stork can eat fish ranging from15 to50cm and the largest fish fish recorded in  Malagarasi wetlands of western Tanzania to be eaten by a  shoebill was 99cm long.

Shoebills most times tend to find it hard to deal with very large prey and this is where the  African fish eagle comes in and steals it.

Shoebill stork Behaviors

Shoebill stork has a tendency of standing still like a statue for long periods as it is patiently waiting for it’s prey to come close. It is a slow moving bird, very sensitive to humans to an extent that it can abandon its nests if interfered with humans.

They are quiet birds and are normally heard bill clattering in their nests during breeding seasons. Shoebill stock is much attracted to poorly oxygenated waters like those of swamps and marshes as in these area, fish most often comes to the surface to catch breathe and that when a shoebill will strike to catch them.

shoebills always tend to abandon prey grounds with low water levels and opt for those with deep water. juveniles abandon nesting sites with increasing water levels and seniors will abandon nesting sites with low water levels.

Feeding habits of a Shoebill stork

Shoebills are solitary hunters who wait on their prey patiently. They stand in one place quietly only waiting for the prey to appear and attack.

It uses its keen eye sight to spot its prey in the vegetation and when it comes close, it gives a violate strike with maximum speed and it hardly misses on it, scooping it up with water and vegetation which later pour out.

It finds hard time holding large preys after striking them and it can take about 10 minutes struggling to hold it by its bill. It cuts large prey into pieces so that they are swallowed in intervals.

Breeding of the shoebill stork

Shoebills start nesting immediately at the end of a rain season. A couple clears an area of about 3m and then they build a very big nest on a floating vegetation.

A nest is usually 3 meters deep and about 2 meters wide. It is strong built from aquatic vegetation like papyrus, tree branches, and grass.

A shoebills lays about 1 to 3 big white eggs with each weighing about 164 grams, measuring 80 to 90 mm high and  54 to 61mm wide. They incubate for approximately 30 days.

breeding of a shoebill stork

They both involve in shading and protecting the eggs. When the female is away to feed, the man remains safe guarding. During very hot days, they fetch water using their mandibles to the nest to cool off the eggs. Although they usually hatch all of the three eggs, they hardly raise more than one chick.

Both the male and the female actively engage in brooding, feeding and guarding although the females are very much protective than the males. chicks are mostly fed on all lung fish and cat fish. Large preys are teared so they they have it in intervals.

By 112 days, the chicks can now fly and are allowed access to the vegetation to hunt. However, they will still be cared for , still fed and both parents always keep close to them. After like one month, they can then feed independently. Shoebills reach sex maturity at 3 years of age and practice polygamy just like humans.

Habitat and Distribution of the Shoebill stork

Shoebills are spread out in the freshwater swamps, marshes, and wetlands of Central tropical Africa. from southern Sudan, Uganda, western Tanzania, Rwanda, northern Zambia and in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

They prefer areas with dense papyrus, reeds, and floating vegetation and that’s why much of them are inhabited the west Nile sub-region and south Sudan. They are also notable, distinct birds of Uganda and Tanzania.

They have also been sighted in Malawi, Botswana, Cameroon and in south western regions of Ethiopia. They prefer hunting in areas with deep water, a floating vegetable, flood plains, reeds and dense less disturbed papyrus.

habitat and distribution of a shoebill

A shoe is a nonmigratory bird and it will stick to an area which has food, deep waters  and far from human disturbances. A shoebill avoids a plain papyrus areas as it prefers areas with mixed vegetation.

Conservation Status

Bird Life International classified the  Shoebill  as Vulnerable with the major threat being habitat destruction by humans.  Other threats to the bird life include  illegal captures for pet trade, agricultural expansion, encroachment on wetlands, and hunting.

The population of a shoebill globally ranges from about 5,000 and 8,000 individuals with the big numbers found in wetlands of Uganda, Sudan, Zambia and Congo.

Importance in Ecosystem

Shoebills play a significant role in their ecosystem as they act as apex predators in the wetland environments they inhabit. They control fish and other vertebrates population they prey on hence contributing to the overall health and and right balance of their habitats.

Cultural and Ecotourism Value

In some African local cultures, shoebills are much respected because of their unique striking appearance and are considered as symbols of good luck.

Because of its distinctive features and behavioral manner, they have got much attention on internet handles by becoming a subject to different memes on different social media handles which has brought them into a popular internet cultures.

Shoebills attract bird enthusiasts from around the globe to their habitats generating revenue to the tourism industries . the fee collected from tourists to these birding destinations, is reinvested in the local communities and in the conservation projects for wetlands. This way, local communities are also sensitized about the importance and reasons for conservation of wetlands

Conservation Efforts

Different conservation measures have been implemented by government wildlife authorities in different countries and some of these include managing and conserving wetlands to preserve habits for different wetland species.

They have put up strict laws on people trying to encroach on wetlands, sensitizing the public about the importance of conserving wetlands, implementing measures to fight illegal hunting and engaging local communities in conservation efforts and promoting good land-use practices.

Best Places to Spot Shoebill Storks

In Uganda, shoebills are best seen at Mabamba Swamp a very accessible and reliable site for shoebill adventures. Here the bird is best seen using a canoe boat or engine boat. They are also clearly sighted at Lake Albert and Murchison Falls National Park.

In Zambia, shoebill is best sighted Bangweulu Wetlands, know for its rich biodiversity of wetland species and offers regular sightings for this elusive bird specie.

In Tanzania, shoebills are best sighted in the wetlands of Ruaha National Park

Tips for Birdwatching, Photography for beginners

Shoebills are best seen in the morning or in the late afternoon hours when they are very active in search of food. This is also the best time to capture magnificent photos of this giant bird species.

For best photo shoot of a shoebill, a photographer should ensure to carry a good digital camera with a telephoto lens for the best images.

tips for bird watching and photography

A pair of binoculars is also recommended for distant clear views as shoebills are elusive birds which can be shy in presence of human limiting their behavioral manner.

Travelers to the shoebill habits are advised to wear neutral colored clothing like army green or brown to blend in with the natural environment and for minimal destruction of the bird.

Solo travelers are advised to hire a local knowledgeable guide to help them with bird spotting and acquire more knowledge about it and its natural habitat.

FAQs about Shoebill stork

Why is the shoebill called a shoebill?

The name “shoebill” comes from the distinctive shape of its bill which looks like a shoe.

Are shoebills dangerous to humans?

Shoebills are not dangerous to humans but are elusive birds which tend to be shy around humans and generally avoid contact with people.

How long do shoebills live?

Shoebills can live for about 35 years in the wild and longer for about 50 years in captivity.

Do shoebills migrate?

Shoebills do not migrate, but they may move from one habitat to another according to changes in water levels and food availability.

Can shoebills fly?

Yes, shoebills can fly, although they spend most of their time on the ground wading through their wetland habitats.

What do shoebills eat?

Shoebills prey majorly on Fish like lung fish, catfish, eels, tilapia and Nile-perch. They also prey on wetland vertebrates like frogs, water snakes, nile monitor lizards, baby crocodile,small turtles, among others.

Do shoebills lay eggs?

Shoebills lay utmost 3 big white eggs in a very big nest built on the floating vegetation in the swamps and hatch them after 30 days.

Are shoebills friendly to humans?

Shoebills are not friends with humans and try to keep away from humans and can permanently abandon their nests if disturbed by humans. They are very shy birds around humans.

Is the shoebill a dinosaur?

A shoebill stork is typically not a dinosaur but a bird and are birds are considered tobe Avian dinosaurs, classified basing on their lineage that connects them to theropod dinosaurs.




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