Known for their rather intimidating appearance, with dinosaur-like features and a strong, powerful beak, shoebill storks may look highly threatening, but does their behavior match their fearsome appearance? Are shoebills dangerous to humans?
Keep reading as we investigate whether this is one species that really shouldn’t be judged on looks alone.
Despite their somewhat sinister appearance, shoebills are generally calm, docile birds that do not pose a risk to humans. However, their strong, wide beak enables them to target some rather sizable prey including crocodiles, lizards and even large antelopes.
Shoebills are wading birds, native to specific regions of central Africa including Uganda, Zambia, Tanzania, and Sudan. Their powerful bills are used to catch and kill prey – usually fish from the wetlands on which they live – but they are also capable of successfully hunting larger mammals, reptiles and waterfowl.
People are not at risk from shoebills, and there are no records of attacks on humans by these “prehistoric throwback” wading birds. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be true.
Shoebills are a vulnerable species with few natural predators. Human hunting contributed significantly to the decline in numbers, and only between 5,000 and 10,000 birds remain in the wild.
Read on to find out more about these elusive, giant storklike birds and their deadly hunting methods, please do read on.
Despite their menacing looks, Shoebill Storks are generally calm birds
Shoebills are well-known for their ‘death stare’, fixing their unblinking eyes on other birds or animals that may encroach on their territory, with the aim of scaring them into retreat. They are ambush predators and will strike stealthily and without warning, using their powerful beaks to crush and rip apart their prey.
Although they are silent for much of the time, shoebills can sometimes be incredibly vocal, especially during the mating season or when warding off predators.
They use their beaks to make a loud noise that sounds like a rapid-fire machine gun, which is more than enough to startle humans who may be engaged in illegal trapping or hunting pursuits.
Shoebill eating prey
Shoebills are precision hunters that ambush prey silently. While sometimes all goes to plan, and the food source is caught during a silent swoop into the water by the shoebill’s giant beak, on occasion a bigger animal may put up a bit more of a fight.
During such clashes with larger animals, the shoebill’s more aggressive nature becomes apparent. For larger prey, such as crocodiles, turtles, rodents and even antelopes, a more intense fight may be required, involving more flapping of the shoebill’s vast wings.
A pair of Shoebill Storks together in the wild
Rather than being “friendly” to humans, it might be more accurate to say that shoebills are tolerant of their presence on the rare occasions that they interact or come into contact with each other.
Humans have been able to observe shoebills in their natural environment from as close as around just 2 m (6 ft) away, with no threat to their own lives and no visible sign that the birds feel threatened or disturbed by their proximity.
Shoebill walking through the wetlands
Despite being comparable in height to an adult human, shoebills will not typically respond to the presence of people with aggressive behavior. Instead, it is more likely that the bird will calmly enter an unblinking “staring contest”, fixing its piercing eyes on them, rather than approaching them in any way.
When they encounter other birds of the same species at close range, it is not at all unusual for confrontation to occur. This aggression towards competing birds begins at an early stage, with siblings targeted in a nest, so only the strongest, most dominant chick in a brood survives.
Shoebills do not seem to fear any other species, regardless of their size, speed or stature, and will feed on waterfowl, particularly young birds.
Shoebill Stork in flight
Shoebills are known as stealthy hunters, and can keep their balance in swampy waters on their spindly legs for long periods of time without faltering.
Their success as precision predators lies in their ability to strike swiftly, before their prey has a chance to detect their presence or predict their movements.
Silent birds for the vast majority of the time, shoebills hunt using a tactic known as “collapsing”, where they lunge forward suddenly, taking their intended prey by surprise. They use their beaks to pierce their prey, and then slice off parts of the body with their bill’s blade-like edges.
Shoebill Stork, Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda
There are no records of shoebill attacks on humans, so this kind of advice is, fortunately, highly unlikely to ever be needed.
General advice when attacks by similar-sized birds occur, includes not making any sudden movements, retreating as quickly as possible (without turning your back on the advancing bird), and protecting your face and head from being struck, sliced or targeted by razor-sharp beaks or talons.
Shoebill hatchlings are known for taking sibling rivalry to an extreme level. Stronger, larger hatchlings will attack and target smaller weaker ones to the point of death, while parents watch on and do not intervene.
This brutal example of the “survival of the fittest” takes the form of the dominant sibling removing smaller birds from the nest where they are neglected and starve to death, or actively attacking them until they die from their injuries. Typically only one shoebill hatchling survives out of a clutch of up to three eggs.
Shoebills are fearless when it comes to confrontation, and will go all out when the need to attack arises, whether it is another shoebill, any other bird species, or even larger animals, such as crocodiles, antelopes, or monitor lizards.
They don’t always come off as victors from such encounters, but will not give up and admit defeat without a huge, and often deadly, battle.
Shoebill Stork in its natural environment, amongst the long green grass
With their menacing appearance and terrifyingly powerful beak, you won’t be surprised to learn that there is no data available for what these merciless predators fear. When it comes to tackling prey, even much larger animals such as crocodiles and antelopes, shoebills do indeed seem to be fearless.
Observed behavior at a wildfowl center in Uganda describes what happens when someone bows to their resident shoebill Sushi – and what happens when they don’t. When visitors greet Sushi with a bow, the greeting is returned, and visitors may even be able to touch him. When visitors do not greet him with a bow, the bird moves away, and will not allow visitors to touch or approach him.
Shoebills prey on crocodiles, especially juvenile ones. They have strong, razor-sharp beaks that allow them to decapitate any prey they catch. These dinosaur-like waders are sometimes dubbed “Death Pelicans” – snakes up to 1 m (3.2 ft) in length pose no problem for a shoebill to catch and kill, and crocodiles of a similar size are also among their most common larger targets.
No records exist of shoebills killing or attacking humans. This isn’t to say it wouldn’t or couldn’t happen, in freak circumstances. So, as with all wildlife species, it is advisable to keep your distance and do as little as possible to disturb their natural habitat if you encounter one in the wild.
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