Although each species of bird is unique in its own way, some species stand out more than others.
One of them is the shoebill. It is endemic to central and northeast Africa, stands between 3.5 and 5 feet tall, with a wingspan of 8 feet. It has gray plumage with large yellow eyes and long legs. With its enormous size and striking appearance, this bird strongly resembles a dinosaur…or maybe a Muppet.
But despite its size, the most striking thing about this bird is its large honking beak. Stretching about 7 inches, the bill would resemble a huge Dutch wooden clog shoe (hence the name shoebill). In fact, the shoebill’s beak is large enough that it can feed on lungfish, turtles, fish, and even young crocodiles.
These large prey can be difficult to catch, so the shoebill spends most of its day fishing in African swamps. This bird hunts by standing still and waiting patiently. Sometimes he will stand still like a statue for hours at a time. Then, once an unlucky fish or turtle swims by, the shoebill swoops forward with its whole body, engulfing its prey in its beak and shaking it to death.
In addition to catching larger prey, the large beak helps these birds communicate with each other and with other animals. Shoebills will click their mandibles together to attract mates and scare off intruders. This snap sounds a bit like a chattering of teeth, but louder. They can even snap their mandibles so quickly it looks like a machine gun is being fired.
These birds prefer to live in solitude. Even a mating pair will feed separately through the swamp. If two males cross paths, it’s a safe bet they’ll fight, or at least argue with territorial bill-clapping.
Being a very strange bird, it took some time for the shoebill to be scientifically properly classified. Due to physical and behavioral studies, this bird was once placed in the same order as storks, herons, and ibises (order Ciconiiformes). Still other physical and genetic studies have classified this bird as more closely related to pelicans (order Pelecaniformes). But more recently, the shoebill has been placed in its own taxonomic family, the Balaenicipitidae. With all the confusion, the current taxonomic placement of shoebills is still up for debate, and there could be other changes down the line.
The shoebill is a fascinating bird, and there may still be a lot to learn about it. Unfortunately, habitat loss and capture by humans, among other threats, have put these birds at risk. The shoebill is classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which estimates that there are between 3,300 and 5,300 mature birds of this species left in the wild in Africa. But hopefully, with more habitat protection and conservation work, we can keep these prehistoric-looking creatures around for a long time.
Adam Trujillo is an education intern at the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, a non-profit organization dedicated to saving birds and their habitats along the entire Gulf Coast and beyond in their wintering grounds in Central America and from South.