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The Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex) also known as Whalehead or Shoe-billed Stork, is a very large stork-like bird. It derives its name from its massive shoe-shaped bill. Although it has a somewhat stork-like overall form and has previously been classified in the order Ciconiiformes, its true affiliations with other living birds is ambiguous. Some authories now reclassify it with the Pelecaniformes. The adult is mainly grey while the juveniles are browner. It lives in tropical east Africa in large swamps from Sudan to Zambia.
The Shoebill was only classified in the 19th century when some skins were brought to Europe. It was not until years later that live specimens reached the scientific community. However, the bird was known to both ancient Egyptians and Arabs. Traditionally allied with the storks (Ciconiiformes), it was retained there in the Sibley-Ahlquist taxonomy which lumped a massive number of unrelated taxa into their "Ciconiiformes". More recently, the shoebill has been considered to be closer to the pelicans (based on anatomical comparisons) or the herons (based on biochemical evidence; Hagey et al., 2002). A recent DNA study suggests they are part of the Pelecaniformes. The dispute has turned out to be mainly one of where to draw the boundary between Ciconiiformes and Pelecaniformes, or whether to draw it at all. Since cormorants and relatives are probably not actually Pelecaniformes, a solution adopted by some modern authors is to merge the "core" Pelecaniformes with the Ciconiiformes. The Shoebill and the Hammerkop (Scopus umbretta) are the "missing links" that connect pelicans and storks, and including the pelican lineage in the Ciconiiformes expresses this more adequately than other treatments do. So far, two fossil relatives of the shoebill have been described: Goliathia from the early Oligocene of Egypt and Paludavis from the Early Miocene of the same country. It has been suggested that the enigmatic African fossil bird Eremopezus was a relative too, but the evidence for that is unconfirmed. All that is known of Eremopezus is that it was a very large, probably flightless bird with a flexible foot, allowing it to handle either vegetation or prey.
Distributed in freshwater swamps of central tropical Africa, from southern Sudan thru parts of of eastern Zaire, Rwanda, Uganda and western Tanzania. Most numerosus in the West Nile sub-region and adjacent areas of the south Sudan, significant also in wetlands of Uganda and western Tanzania. More isolated reccords have been reported in Kenya, the Central African Republic, northern Cameroon, southwestern Ethiopia, Malawi. Vagrating strays to the Okavango Basin, Botswana and the upper Congo have also been sighted. The distribution of this species seem to largely oincides with that of papyrus and lungfish. The Shoebill is non-migratory with limited seasonal movements due to habitat changes, food availability and disturbance by humans. The Shoebill occurs in extensive, dense freshwater marshes. Almost all wetlands that attract the species have undisturbed Cyperus papyrus and reedbeds of Phragmites and Typha. Although their distribution largely seems to correspond with the distribution of papyrus in central Africa, the species seems to avoid pure papyrus swamps and often attracted to areas with mixed vegetation. More rarely, the species has been seen foraging in rice fields and flooded plantations.
The Shoebill is a tall bird, with a typical height range of and some specimens reaching as much as . Length from tail to beak can range from and wingspan is . Weight has reportedly ranged from in the Shoebill. A male will weigh on average around and is larger than a typical female of . The signature feature of the species is its huge, bulbous bill, which is straw-colored with erratic grayish markings. The exposed culmen (or the measurement along the top of the upper mandible) is . The sharp edges in the mandibles help the Shoebill to decapitate their prey and also to discard any vegetation after prey has been caught. As in the pelicans, the upper mandible is strongly keeled, ending in a sharp nail. The dark colored legs are fairly long, with a tarsus length of . The Shoebill's feet are exceptionally large, with the middle toe reaching in length. The neck is relatively shorter and thicker than other long-legged wading birds such as herons and cranes. The wings are broad, with a wing chord length of , and well-adapted to soaring. Its wings are held flat while soaring and, as in the pelicans and the storks of the genus Leptoptilos, the Shoebill flies with its neck retracted. Its flapping rate, at an estimated 150 flaps per minute, is the slowest of almost any bird, with the exception of the larger stork species. When flushed, Shoebills usually try to fly no more than from their prior location. The plumage of adult birds is blue-grey with darker slaty-grey flight feathers. The breast presents some elongated feathers, which have dark shafts. The juvenile has a similar plumage color, but is a darker grey with a brown tinge. When they are first born, Shoebills have a more modestly-sized bill, which is initially silvery-grey in color. The bill becomes more noticeably large when the chicks are 23 days old and becomes well developed by 43 days.
The Shoebill is noted for its slow movements and tendency to remain still for long periods, leading the repeated descriptions of the species as "statue-like". They are quite sensitive to human disturbance and may abandon their nests if flushed by humans. However, while foraging, if dense vegetation stands between it and humans, this wader can be fairly tame. The Shoebill is attracted to poorly oxygenated waters when fish frequently surface to breath. Exceptionally for a bird this large, the Shoebill often stands and perches on floating vegetation, making them appear something like a giant jacana, although the similarly-sized and occasionally sympatric Goliath heron is also known to stand on aquatic vegetation. Shoebills typically feeds in muddy waters and, being solitary birds, forage at a minimum distance of from one another. This species stalks its prey patiently, in a slow and lurking fashion. While hunting, the Shoebill strides very slowly and is frequently motionless. Unlike some other large waders, this species hunts entirely using vision and is not known to engage in tactile hunting. When prey is spotted, it launches a quick, violent strike. However, depending on the size of the prey, handling time after the strike can exceed 10 minutes. Around 60% of strikes are successfully in yielding prey. Frequently water and vegetation is snatched up during the strike and is spilled out from the edges of the mandibles. Occasionally, the activity of hippopotamus may inadvertently benefit the Shoebill, as the huge mammals occasionally force fish to the surface of the water while they are submerged. Shoebills are largely piscivorous but are assured predators of a considerable range of wetland vertebrates. Preferred prey species have reportedly included Marbled lungfish and Senegal Birch as well as various Tilapia species and catfish, the latter mainly in the genus Clarias. Other prey eaten by this species has included frogs, water snakes, Nile monitors and baby crocodiles. More rarely, turtles, snails, rodents and small waterfowl have been reportedly been predated. There was also single report of Shoebills feeding on Lechwe calves, although this would need confirmation. Given its sharp-edged beak, huge bill and wide gape, the Shoebill can hunt quite large prey, often targeting larger prey than other large wading birds. Fish eaten by this species are commonly in the range of long and weigh around , though lungfish of as much as have been attacked. Snakes predated are commonly from long. In the Bangweulu Swamps of Zambia, the main prey items feed to young by the parents consisted of Clarias mossambicus (a catfish) and water snakes. In Uganda, lungfish and catfish were mainly feed to the young.
The solitary nature of Shoebills extends to their breeding habits. Nests typically occur at least than 3 nests per square kilometer, unlike herons, cormorants, pelicans and storks which nest in colonies. The breeding pair of Shoebills vigorously defends a territory of from conspecifics. In the extreme north and south of the species' range, nesting starts right after the rains end. In more center regions of the range, it may nest near end of wet season in order to hatch around the beginning of the following wet season. Both birds build the nest on floating platform, after clearing out an area of approximately across. The large, flattish nesting platform is often partially submerged in water and can be as much as deep. The nest itself is about across. Both the nest and platform are made of aquatic vegetation. In Sudan, the nests apparently was able to support the weight of an adult man, although this was not the case in Zambia. From one to three white eggs are laid. These eggs measure high by and weigh around . Incubation lasts for approximately 30 days. Both parents actively brood, shade, guard and feed the nestling, though the females are perhaps slightly more attentive. Food items are ground into pulp with the bill and then fed to young. Fledging is reached at around 105 days and the young birds can fly well by 112 days. However, they are still fed for possibly a month or more after this. It will take the young Shoebills 3 years before they become fully sexually mature.
The Shoebill is normally silent, but they perform bill-clattering displays at the nest. When engaging in these displays, adults birds have also been noted to utter a cow-like moo as well as high-pitched whines. Both nestlings and adults engage in bill-clattering during the nesting season as a means of communication. When young are begging for food, they call out with a sound uncannily like human hiccups. In one case, a flying adult bird was heard uttering hoarse croaks, apparently as a sign of aggression at a nearby Marabou Stork.
This species is considered to be one of the five most desirable birds in Africa by ornithologists. There are Egyptian images depicting the Shoebill, while the Arabs referred to the bird as abu markub, which means one with a shoe, a reference to the bird's distinctive bill.
The population is estimated at between 5,000 and 8,000 individuals, the majority of which live in swamps in Sudan, Uganda, eastern Zaire, and Zambia. BirdLife International have classified it as Vulnerable with the main threats being habitat destruction, disturbance and hunting.