The shoebill (Balaeniceps rex) among lush green grass and bushes in Mabamba swamp, Udanda birdwatching



Species Spotlight


Names & nicknames: Shoebill, Whalebill, Swamp King, Bog Bird... The Death Pelican

Size: These beauties can get pretty big, measuring almost as tall as Ariana Grande with a wingspan of a whopping 260cm! Like most bird species, though, their hollow bones help them fly, so they only weigh the same as Shih Tzu.

Smell: Swamps can be pretty spicy places at the best of times, and Shoebills definitely contribute to that. They like to perform the highly effective, though highly unusual act of urohydrosis. Basically, they poop all over their legs. In their defence, it's actually a special mixture of poo and wee that evaporates, cooling them down. Kind of like how sweat cools us down!

Communication: Still and silent most of the time… until the bill clattering starts. This ear-bending act is their way of greeting each other, a machine gun-like sound you have to hear to believe. It gets better: they can also moo like a cow.

Favourite hangout: Shoebills love all things swampy. They’re happiest kicking it in large, seasonally flooded swamps of tropical Africa, ideally with thick vegetation and plenty of yummy fish to feed on.

Favourite snack: Large slippery lungfish! When Shoebills go out for dinner, that's what they order. If the swamp is out of stock? Other fish, frogs, snakes, and even small crocodiles will do.

Love language: Head bobbing, bill clapping, this is likely the route to the Shoebill's heart – they love to form lifelong bonds with surprisingly separate results. Mating, building nests, and incubating eggs, that's it as far as dates go – Shoebills prefer to spend as little time with each other as possible... at opposite ends of their territories!

If you see them: Despite looking like a dinosaur and sounding like something from Call of Duty, Shoebills aren’t as scary as they appear. Surprisingly, they’re pretty calm around humans. If you do get too close, they might engage you in a staring contest, one we guarantee the Shoebill will win.

Red flags: They love their swamp homes, so it's sad times when humans destroy Shoebill neighbourhoods for farmland or oil. We can all agree these beefy birds are objectively badass, which sadly makes them hot property for zoos and the bird trade. They're just too cool.

Shoebill bird staring in slow motion in Uganda, Africa.

Glow-up: Late bloomers compared to other birds. Interestingly, they're featherless for the first two months, taking another month to grow into themselves... no surprise given the size of them.

Eating habits: Meet one of the most patient hunters in the animal kingdom. Shoebills have two ingenious methods for catching prey – the ‘stand and wait’ and the ‘wade and walk slowly’. Once a tasty lungfish has come into range, which might take a while, the Shoebill's iconic beak gobbles the hapless critter in an instant!

Fun facts: They have a history of modelling for ancient Egyptian art. These communities called them Abu-Markhub, meaning ‘father of slipper’, because of it's shoe-like beak. It took the Europeans a while to catch sight of them - 1850 – thanks to their elusive nature and swampy homes.

Who are they: The still and silent type, a bit intimidating at first but you soon learn they are very calm and stable.

How endangered are they: Vulnerable

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