FunNature & AnimalThe deep look of the shoebill

The deep look of the shoebill

Few birds are capable of transmitting, with a single glance, the impression and respect that is reflected in the eyes of the shoebill . With the scientific name Balaeniceps rex , this African bird of almost a meter and a half in height and a wingspan of more than two and a half meters is a worthy heir to the Mesozoic dinosaurs. When a shoebill looks someone straight in the eye, they say it is an experience that is hard to forget, it is even impressive to see it in photography.

The nature of the shoebill

The first specimen of the shoebill was scientifically described in 1850 by the English ornithologist John Gould , the same one who identified Charles Darwin’s finches; although it was already known by the ancient Egyptians. It is a difficult animal to see, although once it is found, it allows people to approach it without problems.

It was initially classified as a relative of the storks, based on its body anatomy. However, molecular studies show that the closest animals to the shoebill are actually pelicans . Like these, and unlike storks and flamingos, the shoebill flies with its neck retracted. When walking, it moves in slow, deliberate movements and can remain completely still for long periods of time.

It feeds in lagoons, swamps and ponds, especially in stagnant and poorly oxygenated water environments. It patiently stalks its prey, watching it intently, motionless, until it comes within range, at which point it launches a single, swift, violent attack from its powerful beak.

It feeds mainly on fish, relatively often on lungfish , inhabitants of ponds that rise to the surface to breathe. Also frogs, water snakes, monitor lizards and even baby crocodiles. When food is scarce, it can prey on turtles, rodents, and small waterfowl. Its robust and strong beak allows it to hold prey much larger than its head, and tear them apart to consume them little by little.

Sometimes, this way of feeding becomes a disadvantage. Kleptoparasitism against the shoebill has been observed in the African fish eagle ( Haliaeetus vocifer ). Kleptoparasitism is the behavior by which one animal steals resources that another animal has obtained, usually food or nest building materials. Hence it is also called ‘ theft parasitism ‘. In the case we are dealing with, the shoebill is capable of capturing much larger prey than the African fish eagle.

While the shoebill is butchering its prey, the bird of prey takes advantage of moments of inattention to steal bits of food.

How many shoebills are left?

The shoebill population is steadily declining. Currently, it is estimated that its population is between 3,000 and 5,000 individuals. As it is a sedentary, solitary and territorial species, it usually occupies large territories, which makes it difficult to protect it. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) considers it a “vulnerable” species, although some authors affirm that it is more threatened than the available information suggests.

Its range extends from South Sudan to Zambia, including Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In most of its range, the species is threatened by habitat destruction, hunting, and trapping .

Habitat degradation is caused by agricultural reasons, especially tobacco and rice cultivation; dry-season fires, often set by farmers themselves; and habitat loss caused by oil drilling, in South Sudan and Uganda. They are also activities that generate large amounts of pollution, which also negatively affects the shoebill.

Its calm and peaceful nature, even with human beings —for whom it does not pose any risk, despite its threatening appearance, and to whom it usually allows approaching—, facilitates its hunting or capture. Hunting is mainly for food and cultural reasons, while capturing is mainly for commercial purposes, especially in countries where this practice is still legal. They are highly prized animals by private zoos and collectors.


Collar, NJ 1994. The Shoebill. Bulletin of the African Bird Club, 1(1), 19-20. IUCN. 2022. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2021-3.

Mayr, G. 2003. The phylogenetic affinities of the Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex). Journal Fur Ornithologie, 144(2), 157-175. DOI: 10.1007/BF02465644

Mullers, RHE et al. 2015. Parental Nesting Behavior, Chick Growth and Breeding Success of Shoebills (Balaeniceps rex) in the Bangweulu Wetlands, Zambia. Waterbirds, 38(1), 1-9. DOI: 10.1675/063.038.0102

Steffen, A. 2018. Balaeniceps rex (shoebill). In T. Dewey (Ed.), Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan, Museum of Zoology.

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