Shoebill | The giant ancient bird that can eat crocodiles

This fascinating creature would look at home in Jurassic Park. Tall, striking and known for its tremendous beak, the bird is most commonly known as the shoebill. Despite its prehistoric looks, with only a few thousand left on the planet, the shoebill is sadly now classified as vulnerable.

Shoebill stork stare
(Getty Images)

There are a few birds you wouldn’t want to come across in a dark alleyway at night. The cassowary is one of them, with its vicious size and claws, though its striking colors might lull you into a false sense of security. The shoebill is another. Standing up to five feet tall with a sharp beak and huge bill, these birds make for fearsome predators in their native habitat. 

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They are found in large swamplands across central East Africa, from as far north as South Sudan right down to northern Zambia. Carnivores, the shoebill stands perfectly still in shallow water and swamps, waiting to strike. Its bill is five inches wide, with razor-like edges and a hook on the end. Its diet mainly consists of catfish, but it can also scoop larger prey, such as eels, snakes, Nile lizards and even baby crocodiles. 

Shoebill stork
A pair (female and male) of extremely rare Shoebills (Balaeniceps rex) on the shores of Lake Victoria, Uganda. (Getty Images)

Though they are often still referred to as the shoebill stork, it is a species in a family all of its own. Though they have visible similarities to storks and herons, their closest relative is in fact the pelican.

Shoebills can stand still for hours while they wait for their prey. When the moment arrives, their hunting technique is known as collapsing, as they launch their beak downward and their body follows.  

Despite their stealth and patience when hunting, when the shoebill wants to make a noise, its giant bill finds another use. The noise is known as “bill clattering” as they rear their giant necks upward. See and have a listen for yourself below.

In the wild, shoebills can live for around 35 years, and up to 50 years in captivity. They reach maturity at around three or four years of age and are monogamous in breeding. Females lay an average of two eggs at the end of the rainy season though usually only one survives to fledge. Both parent birds tend to the eggs, but shoebills are solitary animals and pairs often live at different ends of a swamp or territory. 

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature places the total number of adult shoebills left in the world between 3,300 and 5,300. Sadly, that population is only decreasing. Habitat loss and oil production in the area are both major threats, while the birds are sometimes hunted – occasionally for food, and also because they are considered a bad omen by some local fishermen.

Check out some more of our favorite bird stories in the video below!

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