The most noticeable feature of the shoebill is the clog-shaped bill which is pointed and hooked at the end. Their beak is 25cm (9.8in) long.
Their feathers are a uniform grey or bluish grey across the head, body, wings and head. Wing feathers have a pale edge. Their belly is white. On top of the head is a short crest of feathers which is always held erect. They stand atop long legs which are bare of feathers and coloured black. These legs end with large toes that help walk through their marshy habitat.
Both genders display similar colouration. The eye is coloured yellow or whitish-grey.
Shoebills stand 120-130cm (4-4.3ft) tall and have a wingspan of 220-245cm (7.2-8ft). On average they weigh 4.5-6.5kg (10-14lbs).
They are a carnivorous species. Most of their diet is fish such as lungfish and tilapia. These are supplemented with prey ranging from small snakes, rodents, frogs, turtles and birds up to monitor lizards and crocodiles.
These birds can go up to four days without a meal.
To catch food they will stand still and wait for prey to swim by. Once it does they lunge forward and place the fish in their bill. Once it is secure they swing the bill from side to side till they dislodge items such as vegetation and are left with just the prey. They then swallow their food headfirst.
Africa is the native home of the shoebill. Here they can be found in the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Zambia.
Most of their time is spent in flooded marshes and swamps where they can find food. They also make use of human made habitats such as rice paddies and other flooded fields.
Shoebills are monogamous and mate with the same partner each year. Courtship is not well documented but is believed to include head bobbing and bill clapping. Breeding is variable across their range but typically occurs at the start of the dry season so chicks will fledge as the rains begin.
They will form their nest on a large and flat mound of wet plant matter among the papyrus and other reeds. Pairs work to defend this against other shoebills. It can be up to 3m (9.8ft) across. They will clatter their bill, do a version of their food collapse and even jump on to the back of others to ward them off.
Typically they lay 2 eggs though 3 is possible. These are white when laid but will stain brown throughout incubation which is undertaken by both parents for the 30 day period. Their bill comes in handy during the incubation process as it can get warm and they will collect water in the beak which is then poured over the egg.
At hatching they are covered with silvery-grey down. Once they hatch the shoebills begin to feed on regurgitated food which is dropped in to the nest by the parents. As they grow the parents will place prey items in the nest for them to pretend hunt.
While three eggs may be laid, in most occasions only one chick reaches maturity as they will out compete and potentially kill their siblings.
Fledging occurs at 95 days and they will become independent by 125 days.
The shoebill is primarily solitary spending most of their time apart even though they form monogamous pairs. Pairs maintain a territory and often feed at the opposite ends of this. On a rare occasion when fish are in high numbers in an area and food is scarce they may gather together.
As a means of cooling themselves the shoebill stork may defecate on their legs. As their feces are almost entirely liquid this will cool the blood running through the legs and this then cools the rest of their body.
Much of their time is spent wading though they are capable fliers. In flight they have their neck tucked back against the body.
Predators and Threats
Crocodiles and humans are the main predators of adult shoebills.
Humans affect the population of shoebills through oil and gas drilling in their habitat, hunting, building dams that affect their waterways, introducing other species which compete with them, polluting water sources and they also get caught in the cross fire of civil unrest.
The shoebill is also known as the whale-headed stork. They are not a stork and have their own family.
Their shoe shaped nose has been recognized by many civilizations throughout the years. They are in Ancient Egyptian art and the Arabs knew them as Abu-Markhub which translates as “father of slipper.”
Shoebills are incredibly secretive and as such they were not known to European science till the 1850s.
Used under license
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Ambrose, J., 2015. Wildlife Of The World. 1st ed. London: Dorling Kindersley.
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Pairi Daiza. 2020. The Shoebill. [online] Available at:
Animals.sandiegozoo.org. 2020. Shoebill | San Diego Zoo Animals & Plants. [online] Available at:
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