The Shoebill Stork and all modern birds descend from theropods, a group of dinosaurs that included species like the Tyrannosaurus rex. Ornithologists refer to the shoebill as Balaenicps rex, or B-rex, meaning ‘the whale-headed king’, which refers to its distinctive large bill.
Do you know the Shoebill stork’s wings can get as long as 2.5 meters? What if I told you these birds poop on their legs to reduce their body temperature? Yes, there are so many more fascinating things about the Shoebill stork than its beak. Let me tell you some cool stuff about this bird.
- Comparing the Shoebill Stork to Dinosaurs
- Taxonomy of the Shoebill Stork
- How Big Can a Shoebill Stork Get?
- How Fast is a Shoebill Stork?
- Are Shoebill Storks Aggressive?
- What Do Shoebill Storks Eat?
- Where Do Shoebill Storks Live?
- How Many Shoebill Storks are Left?
- What Animals Eat Shoebills?
- Do Shoebill Storks Eat Their Young?
- Why Do Shoebills Shake Their Head?
- Do Shoebill Storks Mate for Life?
- How Often Do Shoebills Lay Eggs?
- How Many Eggs Does a Shoebill Lay?
Comparing the Shoebill Stork to Dinosaurs
It’s clear the shovel-faced shoebill stork looks primeval. But how exactly does this “living fossil” bird compare anatomically and evolutionarily to the dinosaurs that ruled the Earth millions of years ago?
Skeletal Structures: Birds Evolved from Dinosaurs
Skeletally, the shoebill shares many traits with dinosaurs courtesy of its evolutionary ancestry:
- Hollow, pneumatized bones
- Hardened beaks with no teeth
- Clawed, three-toed feet
- Long bony tails
- Arm bones adapted into wings
In fact, bird skeletons are basically miniaturized dinosaur skeletons – retaining many hallmark features.
Although much smaller, shoebills have skeletal structures that closely resemble those of dinosaurs in terms of osteology.
Plumage: Feathers vs Protofeathers
Shoebills sport dense feathers that help fuel comparisons to feathered dinosaurs like microraptors. But dinosaur “protofeathers” likely differed:
- Shoebill feathers are fully formed with interlocking barbs
- Dino protofeathers more hair-like without branching barbs
- May have served more for insulation than aerodynamic flight
Therefore, despite their shaggy appearance, shoebill feathers are fundamentally similar to those of modern birds.
Taxonomy of the Shoebill Stork
The shoebill stork (Balaeniceps rex) is a truly unique bird. As its name suggests, this large wading bird has an enormous shoe-shaped bill that gives it a prehistoric appearance. But where exactly does the shoebill fit into the avian family tree?
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Aves
- Order: Pelecaniformes
- Family: Balaenicipitidae
- Genus: Balaeniceps
- Species: Balaeniceps rex
So taxonomically speaking, the shoebill is placed in its own family Balaenicipitidae, with its scientific name being Balaeniceps rex. The shoebill being the only species in the Balaenicipitidae family and Balaeniceps genus reflects its unique taxonomic position.
Closely Related Species
DNA analysis and fossil evidence give clues about the shoebill’s ancestry, even though it has no living relatives.
- Small wading bird found throughout sub-Saharan Africa
- Distinctive rounded crest on its head
- Builds huge nests in trees near water
- Omnivorous, eats everything from fish to frogs to insects
- Agile flyer with excellent eyesight
- Closest living relative to the shoebill
- Stocky heron found in Mexico, Central and South America
- Large, thick, scoop-shaped bill
- Nocturnal feeder – roams at night
- Specialized for eating crabs and crayfish
- Bright yellow eyes may give good night vision
- Closely related to the shoebill
- Some morphological similarities like large throat pouches
- May share common early ancestral lineages
- More adapted for surface feeding than shoebills
How Big Can a Shoebill Stork Get?
The Shoebill stork is one of the tallest birds in Africa. It can get as tall as 60 inches. Measured from the tail to its beak, the Shoebill can be as long as 55 inches. The Shoebill is a sturdy bird with an average weight of 8.8 to 15.4 lbs.
How Fast is a Shoebill Stork?
The Shoebill, when it maximum speed, can move as fast as 30mph.
Are Shoebill Storks Aggressive?
Well, while a warming bird, we will admit the Shoebill is not the most cool-headed bird you can get. When the situation demands, this bird can get really aggressive, fending off exponentially bigger animals than it.
Shoebills have been reported to fight off creatures as fearful as Nile crocodiles. It is an avid predator as well. When smaller animals come around that it perceives as prey, this bird is not the type to relent or show mercy.
What Do Shoebill Storks Eat?
The Shoebill is predominantly a fish eater and feast on other aquatic delicacies like catfish, frogs, lungfishes, turtles, and water snakes. More interestingly, the Shoebill is brave enough to prey on baby crocodiles.
Its hunting skill is nothing less than spectacular. It slowly moves through the water when searching for its meal. The Shoebill can patiently wait around aquatic areas (sometimes more than two hours standing still) where the oxygen content is relatively low.
Such a shortage of oxygen forces its unfortunate prey to come closer to the water surface to source oxygen. When the Shoebill senses that its prey is approaching it unsuspectingly, it collapses its pose, propelling itself vigorously at the prey.
Bang! The Shoebill strikes at it with the piercing edge of its upper beak. Its beak boasts so much strength that the Shoebill can tear through a six-foot fish readily at a thrust. With just a few thrusts, the Shoebill can rapidly tear up a lungfish, swallowing it all up in just one gulp. A powerful bird, isn’t it?
Where Do Shoebill Storks Live?
Shoebills have their populations majorly spread across the freshwater swamps situated in the tropics of central Africa. You can expect to find sizable packets of this bird in areas like Rwanda, Tanzania, Eastern Congo, and Northern Zambia.
The highest concentration of these birds is in South Sudan, Uganda, and the West Nile region. Other than that, you may find sparse populations of the Shoebill stork in Botswana, Northern Cameroon, Malawi, and Western Ethiopia.
How Many Shoebill Storks are Left?
Unfortunately, the population of this remarkable bird is shrinking fast. The number of Shoebill Storks left on our planet has shrunk to about 3,300-5,300. Hence they have been listed on International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
Many ugly reasons facilitate this decline, but two are prevailing. These are aggressive human hunting and increasing destruction of the Shoebill’s natural habitat.
For the first, hunters are vigorously hunting the Shoebill. More than just for meat, the Shoebill is a prized exotic bird with high demands, especially in foreign zoos. In such zoos, a young Shoebill can sell as high as $20k. Therefore, people are desperate to get them and make a fortune from them.
Habitat loss is also accelerating the demise of this bird. Rapid urbanization, drilling, ranching, and agriculture are destroying the Shoebill’s ecosystem. Rid of their haven, they struggle to feed and survive.
What Animals Eat Shoebills?
The terrifying looks of the Shoebill don’t stop it from being a delicacy for the likes of crocodiles. This is a sort of poetic justice as Shoebills are known to feast on baby crocodiles. Humans also eat Shoebill, as said.
Do Shoebill Storks Eat Their Young?
The Shoebill’s world is not the most civilized one. Often, it is a savage survival of the fittest where menacing stronger and older Shoebills can kill weaker and smaller ones.
Sibling rivalry is intense and often bloody. Commonly, the bigger chick will bully its smaller siblings. The mother Shoebill often takes the side of the bigger chick.
Empowered, this bigger bully will make the nest so uncomfortable for its weaker siblings, denying them regularly food and water and ultimately accelerating their departure from the nest.
A more brutal alpha chick may not take such a long path of frustrating its weaker siblings into leaving. It may just kill them outrightly. The chick that survives such bitter competition can go out to live as long as 35 years.
Why Do Shoebills Shake Their Head?
If you study the Shoebill closely, you will often notice it shaking its head. This curious head-shaking routine is done in a back-and-forth manner like the Shoebill is striving to eject something from its head.
Often, it is actually trying to get something out of its mouth. This is common when the Shoebill accidentally ingests the weeds that stick to the prey they eat.
Such weeds can be discomfiting, and they would shake their head, attempting to dislodge such weed. If you don’t know this and you see the Shoebill shaking its head on dry land, you may mistake it for a habit or neurological dysfunction.
Do Shoebill Storks Mate for Life?
Yes, Shoebills are faithfully monogamous. They choose one partner, and it is until death does them apart. During mating season, monogamous pairs are formed.
In inspiring teambuilding spirit, the male and female partners would collaborate through nest preparation, egg incubation, and even taking turns to protect their hatchlings.
How Often Do Shoebills Lay Eggs?
The Shoebill will lay eggs once in 12 months. Depending on their habitat, shoebills prefer to mate during the dry season.
In some cases where the rainy season is unusually prolonged, the impatient shoebills could mate in the last days of the rainy season.
How Many Eggs Does a Shoebill Lay?
In one clutch, you can expect the Shoebill to lay anywhere from one to three eggs. The eggs are typically white and round.
The eggs can up to 3 inches, even weighing as much as 6 ounces. Commonly, only one hatchling survives as described.
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