There are few birds with funnier looking bills than the shoebill stork. I’ve wanted to write about these guys for a long time, but when it was time to blog about a bird, I’d always forget about them and write about something else. But not today! Today the shoebill stork will claim its rightful place as one of the fine birds to grace this blog’s digital pages!

Shoebill storks (also known as whale-headed storks) are found in central Africa, from Southern Sudan through to Tanzania and Zambia. They live in swampy and marshy areas, particularly when the water is gross and poorly oxygenated. This means that fish have to come to the surface for air, so the hungry shoebills can snap them up fairly easily. Shoebills also tend to hang around swamps that have a lot of papyrus growing in them, for whatever reason. Maybe they like to write…

A shoebill gracefully wading through a swamp.
Image By © Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 3.0

These storks can get quite big, reaching almost a metre and a half in height. They are covered in blue-grey feathers with black tips, and have tufts of feathers on the back of their heads that can be erected. The most prominent feature of the shoebill is, of course, its bill, which is massive, yellow, and quite ugly.

It may just be because they are such fearsome looking creatures, but shoebills are very territorial birds, especially during the breeding season. They are monogamous, and both sexes participate in nest building, incubation, and care of the chicks. Nests are constructed of aquatic vegetation, and are usually partly submerged. They are usually between 1 and 1.7 m across and can be 3m deep. One to three eggs are laid in the nest.

Overheated eggs are a problem for shoebills, so they utilize a number of strategies to keep them cool. The parents will grab mouthfuls of water in their large bills and douse the eggs with water. Another technique is to grab wet grass and place it around the eggs. The storks will also turn the eggs over to keep them evenly cool. After a month, the eggs hatch, and fledging occurs after three months. Though more than one chick is hatched, the parents are only committed to raising one offspring. This is usually the eldest, with the other chicks only there as insurance in case something happens to the firstborn. The surviving chick only becomes independent after four months of age.

Shoebill storks feed on aquatic animals, with lungfish being a particularly favourite meal. They either hide in tall reeds to stalk their prey, or stand on a platform of plants to hunt. When a stork does find a suitable victim, it performs what is known as a ‘collapse’. It stretches its head and neck forward, which causes it to unbalance and throw its body forward as well. Which has to look pretty silly, for such a big, funnily shaped bird. Often an attempt leaves the shoebill full of a mouthful of vegetation, rather than a fish.

Shoebill storks definitely look like they belong in a different era — maybe in a time where neanderthals roamed around and said ‘urk’ a lot. But they are still around today, looking creepy and funny and a teensy bit majestic. I’m certainly glad they’ve stuck around.

Cover image by frank wouters from antwerpen, belgium , België , Belgique, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons, cropped to fit