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38 Shoebill Stork Facts (Yes, They’re Real!) Balaeniceps rex

Are you looking for some facts about the amazing shoebill? You're in the right place! Prepare yourself for 38 facts about this prehistoric-looking bird.

Laughing shoebill

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38 Shoebill Stork Facts

It might look like a dinosaur, but the shoebill stork isn't a T-Rex. It's a Balaeniceps rex. It's one of the largest, strangest birds in Africa, and learning more about it will take you on a journey of everything from decapitation to deforestation.

Are you ready? Have you prepared yourself for these shoebill stork facts? Let's learn about this weird bird!

1. Is the shoebill stork real?

There are a lot of reasons why you might cry “Photoshop!” when looking at shoebill storks. However, they're very real. They exist in the swamps and marshes of central Africa, and their strange physiology helps them with things like hunting, nesting, mating and defending their territory.

Shoebill stork

 

2. Are shoebill storks friendly?

Shoebill storks can be quite aggressive in the wild, so people tend to sensationalize them as “the stork of your nightmares” and “the most terrifying bird in the world.”

In captivity, however, shoebill storks are gentle, docile creatures. They're popular additions to zoos and animal parks because of their larger-than-life appearance, and they'll tolerate all kinds of gawking from tourists. Some locations even allow their shoebill storks to mingle freely with human guests. While petting is discouraged, you can walk right up to them without fear of attack.

3. What does the shoebill stork look like?

Shoebill storks are gigantic birds. They tower over their feathered friends with long, skinny legs and spindly feet. Their wings are quite large as well, folding back over their bodies and providing a fluffy layer of coverage.

Their coloring is a blue-white that tends to stand out in their naturally muddy habitats. They tend to be a lighter blue at the tops of their heads and a darker, almost navy blue at the ends of their feathers.

Their beaks, however, are the most noticeable feature of the shoebill stork. Protruding a massive 7 – 9 inches (17.7-22.8 cm), they look like something out of a dinosaur movie.

Not only are their bills made of hard, strong keratin, but they also end with a sharp nail on the upper mandible to help the shoebill stork rip through its prey. They're usually a yellow color mottled with white and gray.

Watch on YouTube

When you look at all of their physical oddities, it's easy to see why some people believe that the shoebill stork isn't even real. But buckle up: We've barely scratched the surface of their strangeness!

4. How tall is a shoebill stork? Height

The average shoebill measures between 3.5 – 4.5 feet. The tallest on record was a reported five feet.

How tall is the shoebill?

5. How much does a shoebill stork weigh?

Males typically hover around 12 pounds; females are slightly smaller at 11 pounds. The overall weight range for shoebill storks is 8.8 – 15.4 pounds.

6. What is the shoebill storks wingspan?

With a wingspan of 7.7 – 8.6 feet, the shoebill stork can stretch farther than almost everyone else in their genus. They outclass both herons and hamerkops; only pelicans have larger wings.

7. Are shoebill storks actually storks?

This is a more complicated question than it might seem.

For a long time, shoebills were considered storks. They were classified under the ciconiiformes label along with species like the black stork and the marabou stork, and that's why “shoebill stork” is still the name that most people use to describe them.

Technically speaking, however, the shoebill stork isn't a stork at all. After genetic testing, it was determined that they're more closely related to pelicans and herons than storks, so they were re-classified under the pelecaniformes label.

8. Can shoebills fly?

They might not be the world's greatest flyers, but shoebills can take to the air whenever they need to escape a bad situation or find a new feeding ground. They just keep their flights low and quick.

Shoebill flying

Shoebills don't like altitudes of more than 1,000 feet, and they flap their wings at a rate of 150 flaps per minute, which is slower than almost every other bird in existence. Whenever they can, they prefer to glide on thermals rather than flap against air currents.

9. How did the shoebill stork get its name?

Shoebill storks are named after their beaks. Between their size, shape, and color, these enormous mandibles can look a lot like a cobbler's latest pair of clogs.

This is a comparison as old as time, by the way: Arabian countries used to refer to shoebills as abu markub (“one with a shoe”) in reference to their beaks. They've also been depicted in ancient Egyptian art with beaks that were obviously inspired by the footwear of the time.

10. Are shoebill storks extinct?

Shoebill storks are alive and kicking. If you've heard anything about extinction, it probably refers to the fossilized remains of two birds that might have been related to the shoebill.

Recovered from the deserts of the Middle East, “Goliathia” and “Paludavis” were both large, spindly creatures that lived in the same region as shoebills and had the same diet. It's assumed that they're the ancestors of the modern shoebill.

11. How do shoebills keep cool?

Since they don't have sweat glands to keep them cool in the hot African sun, shoebill storks engage in something known as gular fluttering.

This involves vibrating the mouth and throat muscles to encourage heat dissipation. It's a bit like a dog panting during a summer day.

12. Are shoebill storks aggressive?

Shoebill storks can get quite aggressive. It starts when they're young; the first hatchling is usually pampered by its parents while the second and third hatchlings are afterthoughts.

If the firstborn decides that they don't want to share mom and dad with their siblings anymore, they'll push them out of the nest and leave them to die of starvation. The parents will allow this.

Their territorial nature continues into adulthood. Shoebill storks are solitary creatures by nature, so they'll get extremely defensive when another bird encroaches on “their” land. This is usually about a mile in every direction from a centralized spot.

Crazy shoebill

Shoebills are so territorial that they don't even like to share their space with other members of their kind. Researchers have observed groups of shoebills hunting in the same marsh with 20 feet of distance between them, and male-female breeding pairs will spend most of their time on opposite ends of a territory.

13. How long do shoebill storks live?

According to Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, shoebill storks can live around 35 years in captivity. In the wild, this life expectancy is probably a lot lower.

14. Are shoebills lazy?

Some people joke that shoebills are lazy birds because of their tendency to stand around all day. They've even been nicknamed “statues” and “marble sculptures” thanks to their total lack of movement.

However, they aren't napping or relaxing during these periods of inactivity. They're standing perfectly motionless for hours at a time with their senses fully alert and engaged. This is how they hunt! Their “statue” look is actually a highly-effective feeding strategy.

15. What eats a shoebill stork? Predators and Threats

There aren't a lot of animals that will tussle with a shoebill stork. They might be attacked by a hungry or desperate predator every now and then, but they aren't systematically preyed on by any other species.

Their only real period of vulnerability is before they're born. Many creatures will snatch protein-rich eggs from bird nests without caring about their origins. Hatchlings are occasionally taken as well, but only when their parents aren't around; no one wants to fight an enraged mother shoebill.

16. Do shoebills migrate?

Shoebills have been known to relocate when resources dry up in a particular area. Occasionally, shoebill storks will venture so far that they leave the rest of their population behind; there have been vagrant shoebills spotted in places that are hundreds of miles from their natural range.

Facts about shoebills

17. Is the shoebill stork endangered?

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has shoebill storks listed as “vulnerable.” They aren't endangered, but they're at risk for it.

The most pressing concern is that there aren't many shoebills left. According to estimates, there are only 3,300 – 5,300 mature adults in the world, and that population trend is on the decline. They aren't reproducing as fast as they're captured or killed.

Another big issue is that shoebill storks don't like to mate in captivity. Very few zoos have managed to produce hatchlings, and it takes years and years of effort even when they're successful. This means that only wild shoebills are repopulating the species, and they're the ones that are the most vulnerable to threats in the first place.

18. What threatens the shoebill stork?

There are two main sources of trouble for shoebill storks:

  • Habitat loss. This is affecting many animals in Africa, and the shoebill stork is no exception. People are ranching, farming, drilling, damming and building in their natural habitats. Not only do the shoebill storks struggle to survive without adequate shelter, but they also go hungry when their prey dies or is pushed out of their territory.
  • Humans. Shoebill storks are frequently trapped and killed by hunters. Some of them want the meat; others value a unique prize; others still want to export the shoebills across international lines. There's a high demand for these rare and exotic creatures, especially when they're young. They can be sold for $10,000 – $20,000 to foreign zoos.

19. What measures are being taken to protect the shoebill stork?

Many countries have passed laws about the hunting and killing of shoebill storks. They're a protected species, and it's illegal to trap, kill, sell, or eat them.

Poachers don't always listen, of course, but the laws have stopped a lot of the black market trade for shoebills. They've also brought attention to the shoebill's cause, and public awareness can be a valuable tool for conservation efforts.

20. Why do shoebills have such a big beak?

There are a few reasons why shoebill storks might have such large beaks. The most common theory is that it's to help with hunting, but another possibility is that it assists with the gular fluttering that keeps them cool.

Whalehead

21. What do shoebill storks eat?

Shoebill storks mostly feed on fish. They like lungfish, catfish, tilapia, and bichirs. They'll also supplement their diet with other animals that live in or around the water, including frogs, turtles, lizards, snakes, reptiles, and rodents. They've been known to take down smaller waterfowl like ducks and geese.

Watch on YouTube

Occasionally, a shoebill stork will eat a baby crocodile. They'll wait until its parents aren't around, and they'll lunge when the opportunity presents itself. The poor croc doesn't see it coming!

Shoebills will basically eat anything they can fit in their huge bills.

22. How do shoebills hunt?

The hunting habits of the shoebill stork are part of the reason why they have such a fearsome reputation. They aren't afraid of large prey, and they don't show any mercy when it's time to kill.

Shoebill diet

The first thing to know about shoebill storks is that they hunt in the water. They'll wade into shallow creek beds, or they'll stand on top of floating vegetation in deeper swamps. They can be very, very patient as they wait for prey to come across their path. They might remain motionless for entire afternoons.

Once they see something tasty, they'll make a quick, violent strike that either kills the animal outright or stuns them enough to be snatched up in the shoebill's huge beak. Water and algae are often scooped up as well, so the shoebills shake their heads from side to side to expel it while still holding onto their main meal.

At this point, the fight is over. They'll swallow their prey whole, or they'll decapitate it to make it go down easier. Their beaks are so large and bone-hard that they essentially function as a weapon.

After their bellies are full, shoebills will become motionless again as they wait for the next victim to wander across their path.

23. What is the shoebill storks Latin name?

The scientific name of the shoebill stork is balaeniceps rex. This comes from its genus name balaeniceps and the suffix “rex,” which means “king.” It's given to large animals that dominate over others.

24. What other names does the shoebill stork have?

Shoebill storks are occasionally known as whalehead storks, because of those huge bills.

25. Do shoebill storks mate for life?

It's unknown whether shoebill storks mate for life, but they do form monogamous pairs during mating season. Mom and dad will spend most of their time apart, but they'll come together to prepare the nest, incubate the eggs and guard the hatchlings. They'll also take turns regurgitating food for them.

26. At what age do shoebill stork lay eggs?

Shoebill storks reach sexual maturity at three years old, and it's assumed that they begin breeding shortly afterward.

27. How often do shoebill storks lay eggs?

Shoebill storks lay eggs once per year. Mating season is usually the dry season of their particular country, but they might breed during the final days of the wet season if it lasts longer than usual. They're adaptable that way.

28. How many eggs does the shoebill stork lay? What do they look like?

Eggs are round and white, and they're quite hefty. They measure 2 – 3 inches (5-7.6 cm) and weigh 5 – 6 ounces (141.7-170 gm).

As for the size of the brood, shoebill storks lay between 1 – 3 eggs at a time, but only one hatchling typically survives to adulthood. The older and stronger siblings prey on the younger and weaker ones, and they're also at risk of being snatched up by predators or starved to death by their own kin. There are videos of this, but you'll have to find them yourself as I don't want to include them.

In a scenario where food is scarce, the runts of the litter are sacrificed first. The parents will only feed the stronger hatchlings.

29. Do shoebill storks care about their young at all?

Shoebill storks aren't completely heartless. For example, they check and re-check the temperature of their eggs in the hot sun, and they engage in something called “egg-watering” where they pour mouthfuls of water over their nests to keep them from overheating. They'll also pack their nests with cool, wet grasses, and they'll stand over them to provide shade.

They do the same thing with young hatchlings that have yet to grow a protective layer of feathers. Parents will provide shading and dousing whenever it gets too hot.

Additionally, parents feed their young hatchlings on a near-constant basis. Baby shoebill storks require sustenance as often as six times per day, and that means hunting, eating and regurgitating food for them six times per day.

It's true that shoebill storks aren't the cuddliest parents around. However, they do what they need to do to continue their species, and that's what really matters at the end of the day.

30. What is the shoebill storks call?

The shoebill stork doesn't have a true call, but it can produce several different sounds depending on the situation.

Watch on YouTube

The most common is something known as “bill-clattering” where the shoebill makes short, rapid sounds with their beaks. Other noises include croaks, hiccups, and cow-like moos.

Watch on YouTube

31. Are shoebill storks loud?

Bill-clattering can get pretty loud. It's often described as sounding like a machine gun with its quick, sharp and repetitive sounds, and it can reverberate around a swamp with both speed and volume.

32. Why do shoebill storks shake their heads?

Shoebill storks have a habit of shaking their heads back and forth like they're trying to dislodge something. In fact, that's exactly what they're doing: in the water, when sticky weeds can cling to the prey that they're trying to consume, they'll shake their heads to get rid of it.

It's a meaningless habit on dry land, but it's so ingrained that it lingers and looks like a nervous tic to anyone who doesn't know any better.

33. Where does the shoebill stork live?

Shoebill storks are native to Africa. As you can see in a distribution map, they occupy a specific region of the sub-Sahara that includes Uganda, Zambia, Sudan, Tanzania and Zaire.

34. What is the habitat of the shoebill stork?

Shoebills are most at home in wet, muddy environments such as swamps and marshes. It's essential that they're close to a water source; they do most of their feeding on fish and other aquatic animals.

Shoebill height

They also like weeds, reeds, rushes, thickets and papyrus plants. They perch on floating vegetation as they hunt, so they have no use for crystal-clear lakes. They like things dense and messy with lots of plants to stand on and animals to snatch up.

35. Why do shoebill storks gravitate towards shallow water?

They don't care about the depth of the water. They care about the oxygenation of it. Swamps with poor oxygenation will require fish to come to the surface more often, and this gives the shoebill stork more opportunities to feed. It's quite devious when you think about it!

36. Where do shoebill storks nest?

Shoebill storks create partially-submerged nests in secluded, protected places. These nests are usually but not always on a floating platform of reeds. After clearing and flattening an area that could be as large as 9.8 feet (2.9 m) across, the shoebill stork will weave together long grasses to create a soft bedding place for their future eggs.

37. Why do shoebill storks bow?

This is the behavior of a particular shoebill stork known as Sushi. An inhabitant of the Uganda Wildlife Education Center, he's gone semi-viral for his tendency to bow to human guests. This isn't a characteristic of shoebills in general, which is one of the reasons why Sushi got that particular name. His manners reminded his keepers of Japanese culture, so they gave him a name that would complement his bowing.

Watch on YouTube

38. Where can I see the shoebill stork?

You'll need to take a trip to see the shoebill stork. They're only housed at a small number of zoos, parks and wildlife centers around the world, and they can be difficult to spot in the wild since safari tours don't generally encompass their muddy habitats.

Your best bet at seeing a shoebill stork in the flesh is contacting one of their home zoos and arranging a visit.

Shoebill facts

Learn about more cool birds

Bills, Bills, Bills

Hopefully, you've learned some new things from these shoebill stork facts. The world needs to understand more about these strange but wonderful creatures before they're lost forever!

Have you seen these birds in person? Have a question about shoebills? Let us know in the comments!

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Meet the Author

Drew Haines

Drew Haines is an animal enthusiast, travel writer, and content marketer. She loves to share her passion through her writing. She is the founder and owner of EverywhereWild Media, EverywhereWild, and co-founder and owner of JustBirding. She also guest blogs on LatinRootsTravel and GringosAbroad. She lived in Ecuador for 6 years and explored the Galapagos Islands. Currently based in N.S., Canada.

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