The Shoebill

The Shoebill

This regal, albeit odd-looking dinosaur is the Shoebill. A native of East Africa, it inhabits freshwater swamps where it feeds mainly on fish but also takes other vertebrates. It leads a solitary life and doesn't flock or nest in groups like other birds such as pelicans and storks.

Shoebill standing
The bird used to be classified with storks based on its morphology of long legs and other characteristics. However, interestingly enough, DNA analysis puts the shoebill closer in relation to pelicans than to storks. The nearest relative seems to be the hamerkop (Afrikaans word meaning "hammer head") from Africa as well. The hamerkop is a bird that is significantly smaller than the Shoebill.

Probably the most easily recognisable feature of this bird is the bulbous bill that looks like the front of a very large shoe...hence the name. Having one of the largest bills of any extant bird, it seems to only be smaller than some stork species and their cousins, the pelicans. The top section of the bill or "culmen" can be as long as 30 cm or a regular ruler. The bird's colour is a silver grey with darker grey for the flight feathers and tail feathers. They stand up to 1.5m (5ft) tall, which allows them to wade through the swamps looking for prey. Their wingspan can be up to 2.6m (8ft 6in) wide. Much like other large birds like pelicans and storks, shoebills have a relatively slow wing beat per minute average but seem to be good at soaring.

Shoebill wading through a swamp
Returning back to their diet, the Shoebill has a sharp point on their top mandible (aka top beak) which allows them to hold on to larger, more slippery prey. The main prey of the bird seems to be generally fish, but the species of fish changes throughout the range depending on the location. Some common prey species seem to be lungfish and catfish. However, they have also been known to take frogs, snakes, other birds, water monitors and even some smaller crocodiles.

The birds build solitary nests, seeming to not be concerned about protection in numbers. The eggs take about 30 days to hatch and at least one of the parents is always sitting on the nest. They usually lay two or three eggs, but it is usually only the first one to hatch that is raised. The other two are seen as spare offspring in case the first egg fails or hatches weak. The largest offspring will force the others out of the nest. It takes the offspring about 3-4 months before they can start flying. It also takes about 3 years before the offspring reach sexual maturity.

Shoebill bird portrait
The Shoebill is currently listed as vulnerable, with an estimated population of 6000-8000 individuals.The biggest threats faced are habitat destruction and the bush meat trade.

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