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What is a Shoebill?

By S. Ashraf
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The shoebill, or Balaeniceps rex, is a large, stork-like wading bird. A mature shoebill is about 40-55 inches in length (101-140 cm), weighs about 8.8-15.5 pounds (4-7 kg) and has a wingspan of 91-125 inches (231-317 cm). These birds are very tall and stand about 45-60 inches (114-152 cm) in height. Males are somewhat bigger than females, with both sexes having a grayish-blue color. Their distinguishing characteristic is a very large, shoe-shaped greenish beak that is about 9 inches (23 cm) long and ends in a pointed, nail-like hook.

Geographically, the shoebill is found only in the tropical regions of east Africa. Throughout this area, its distribution is broken and further limited because its range usually corresponds with where there are both lungfish, its favorite food, and papyrus reeds. Sudan is the location where the majority of shoebills live. Smaller populations inhabit the wetland areas of northeastern Zambia, western Tanzania, northern Uganda, Rwanda and eastern Zaire. As long as water levels are neither too high nor too low and there is enough prey, the shoebill is sedentary and does not migrate.

For habitat, the shoebill likes areas where there are dense marshes that have abundant floating vegetation and flood with the seasons. These birds are also found in freshwater swamps with extensive undisturbed growths of reeds and papyrus grass. The shoebill inhabits some of the most remote and inaccessible habitat in the world.

Shoebills are carnivorous. Most of their diet comes from lungfish, tilapia, water snakes and catfish. In addition, they will eat turtles, frogs and lizards. The shoebill is a large enough bird that it also will prey on young crocodiles and small mammals. As a nocturnal species, the shoebill feeds mostly at night by standing completely still and then ambushing prey.

These are solitary birds that come together only to form monogamous pairs while breeding. The shoebill's breeding season is not completely understood, but scientists believe that it begins with the start of the dry season and lasts for six or seven months. Shoebills construct their nests on the ground, either on small islands or on masses of floating vegetation. Nests are woven into large structures about 3 feet (1 m) wide from grass or other vegetation.

Both sexes build the nest, incubate the eggs and care for the chicks. Shoebills lay one to three eggs, but only one usually survives. It takes about a month for the eggs to hatch. The chicks remain dependent upon their parents for approximately four months.

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Discussion Comments
By anon335421 — On May 20, 2013

What is the population of the shoebill?

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