7 Reasons to love the Shoebill

© Kevin Bartlett

What is not to love about this prehistoric looking bird that stands almost as tall as myself and is so fluffy he looks like he is begging for a cuddle (although I assure you he wouldn’t let you get that close)?

Well for those of you that need a reason or two to fall in love with the Shoebill; here are 7! He may be rare and in fact is even classified as vulnerable but journeying to central Africa and to the papyrus swamps on which he lives to possibly catch a glimpse of his beauty; is definitely an experience that is on my bucket list.

1. He may be big, but he can fly if he wants to. Granted he doesn’t fly far and long flights amongst Shoebills are rare, this is no mean feat considering he can grow up to 1.5m tall and can weigh up to 7kg!

© Kevin Bartlett

2. He eats a fish that looks almost as prehistoric as himself! Although Shoebills have been known to gulp down other birds, baby crocodiles, frogs, terrapins, water snakes and even small mammals, the lungfish is their staple diet and so their whereabouts has a strong link to the regions in which these fish are found. As to whether Shoebills in fact have prehistoric links….surely? maybe? Extensive research to their origin has scientists scrambling through the record in an apparent fruitless exercise for anything that may be a close relative of Shoebills whether fossil or living. So far only an apparent two fossil relatives have been found.

© Flickr/Joel Abroad

3. It may look like a dutch clog stuck to his face but his Shoebill beak is a very precise fishing tool, razor sharp on its edges to sever the heads of caught lungfish, endowed with a phenomenal hook to secure anything that would want to wriggle out, and designed to shock absorb the brunt of his brutal “collapses” as he plunges with loose abandon after lungfish. The lightning fishing strike of a Shoebill is know as a “collapse” and its the antitheses of its patient stalking technique. Like a geological fault accumulating kinetic energy, this blue monolith will bolt downwards, when triggered loose by the rippling of an incoming fish. Head first, gape open, wings spread, smashing through vegetation, gaping through debris and hopefully coming up with a fish. Then whilst keeping his head aloft from the water, sliding his jaws sideways, he will try to severe the fish and rid himself of unwanted “condiments” in his mouthful like leaves, stems, or rootlets… a bit like sifting through a home made breyani. After a collapse the bird is so hopelessly out of balance and transfixed on what is going on inside his bill, that regaining his vertical stance requires the use of his wings, wiry and lanky legs, and every ounce of spastic counterbalancing his minute tail can possibly generate. Controlled motion are not terms that come to mind to describe this process, and possibly this is the reason why they fish solitarily. A comical sight to watch, its is very hard to hold back a comment or hark of laughter.

© Flickr/Rob Gipman

4. He is so much cooler than me! His large bill comes in very handy to carry large “gulps” of fresh water back to the nest in order to douse eggs or chicks when the sweltering heat of the swamps drives temperatures beyond normality. Other fascinating techiques to cool down involve defecating on his legs as others storks do too, or gular-fluttering which is the same as dog panting, in birdie speak.

© Flickr/Francesco Veronesi

5. He can do that cool disappearing act with his eyes. His nictitating membrane is a translucent layer that protects his eyes when hunting and preening. He also features another cool adaption – the Papyrus and swamps realm have resulted in Shoebill toes being unusually long with no webbing between them in order for him to balance on the water plants as he awaits his prey.

© Kevin Bartlett

6. He has a little bit of an identity crisis. While he may be called a stork, morphologically/taxonomically speaking he shares more traits with herons and pelicans, in fact recent genetic studies suggest he should be better described as an odd, one of a kind, unique family within the Pelicans and can even be referred to as a missing link amongst species!

© Flickr/David Cook Wildlife Photography

7. Along with his wife, he also cares for his young. However even though two babies are born only one is raised and the other serves as a “back-up” should something happen to the first. Beyond that, adults perform a whiney-mewing muttering when attending a nest, that often elicits a “hiccupping” gurgle from their chicks as they beg in anticipation for food. Indeed a creature of few words, Shoebills have a surprisingly small repertoire of vocalisations despite their huge mouth, however bill clappings like storks have been heard in the dark ‘n wee hours of nite.

Credit:africageographic /Author:Janine mare co-authored by Christian Boix Hinzen.

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