Dubbed nature’s most terrifying bird, the shoebill (Balaeniceps rex) has a deserved reputation as a deadly predator in the central African swamps it inhabits. But what do shoebills hunt, and how do they kill their prey?
Read on to learn more about the diet of these marshland giants with perhaps the most intimidating stare in the avian world.
Shoebills are primarily piscivores, following a mainly fish-based diet. Lungfish are the most common species caught, although catfish, bichir and tilapia are also hunted. Water snakes, juvenile crocodiles and young waterbirds may also be eaten when the opportunity arises.
With their giant size and undeniable giveaway to their presence, shoebills have developed some refined hunting techniques to ensure they successfully capture the prey they stalk.
After lunging into the water, their strong beaks allow them to firmly grip hold of fish, snakes and even young crocodiles up to 1 m (3 ft 3 in) in length.
Read on to learn more about the unique and effective techniques shoebills use to catch prey successfully, and find out whether they pose a risk to human life.
Shoebill storks have a mainly fish-based diet
In the wild, shoebills inhabit swamps and marshlands and survive by hunting for fish, particularly lungfish and catfish. Preferred hunting grounds include wetlands with poorly oxygenated water, where fish need to come to the water’s surface to breathe, making them easier to stalk and catch.
Shoebills supplement their diet with other aquatic animals, including rodents, water snakes, small waterbirds, frogs and turtles. Occasionally they will successfully tackle and eat young crocodiles.
In Uganda, lungfish and catfish are the main species found in the shoebill’s diet. Further south, in Zambia, catfish and water snakes are the most important sources of food.
Occasionally they will also hunt for other aquatic creatures, including lizards, rodents, frogs, snails, turtles and even crocodiles up to 1 m (3 ft 3 in) in length.
Unverified reports claim to have witnessed shoebills hunting and eating red lewche, semi-aquatic antelopes that spend a lot of time in watery swamps to avoid predators. Although shoebills are arguably capable of such catches, they are by no means part of their regular daily diet.
Shoebills are opportunistic feeders, and although their diet consists primarily of fish, they will also catch and eat young waterbirds and ducklings if they encounter them.
Shoebills will mainly catch their prey in swamps and marshlands
While shoebills may spend several hours each day silently stalking prey, they are able to survive for more than four days without food. They will strike when the opportunity presents itself, although not all attempts at catching prey are successful.
Shoebills may arrive on their hunting grounds around sunrise, but feeding does not usually start until later in the morning. Although they are mainly active during daylight hours, shoebills may occasionally hunt at night, when the light from the moon is especially bright.
Shoebills are known for their ability to stand motionlessly in marshlands, scoping out prey swimming in the stagnant waters below for extended periods of time before swooping silently into the water to pluck out the fish or water snake they had set their sights on.
They frequently choose to hunt in pools of poorly oxygenated water, meaning that any fish need to swim near the surface to breathe – this gives the shoebill the perfect opportunity to swoop down and easily pluck out their target with pinpoint precision.
Shoebill Stork hunting for eels, early in the morning, Uganda
Shoebills use a technique known as “collapsing” to hunt their prey, standing motionless in swamps and marshes for long periods before silently lunging forwards and plunging downwards to catch hold of a fish or water snake. Prey may be decapitated by the shoebill’s bladelike beak or swallowed whole.
Larger prey, such as crocodiles or lizards, may pose more of a challenge, requiring the strength of the shoebill’s beak and its razor-sharp edges to inflict a fatal injury.
Shoebills’ diets are relatively consistent all year round, with the swamp-dwelling waders scanning the stagnant waters for fish, eels and water snakes in all seasons.
When fish stocks are low, then other alternatives may become more frequently hunted, including waterbirds, crocodiles, and even antelopes.
In summer, shoebills continue to stand in wait in stagnant waters, ready to lunge beneath the surface to pluck out fish swimming there.
Fish supplies are generally more plentiful in the spring and summer, although climate change poses a challenge with the loss of wetlands in hot, dry locations, meaning that food sources may not be as abundant as expected.
Parent birds take turns to regurgitate fish which they then feed to their young, initially making between one and two feeding visits each day.
After around a month, whole prey items are brought to the nest for the young and feeding frequency gradually intensifies. Fledging takes place between 95 and 105 days, and young shoebills are capable of hunting their own food around a week or so later.
Shoebill flying off with recently caught fish prey
Only a handful of shoebills are kept in captivity around the world, with individual birds in conservation programs. These birds are fed on a variety of live fish, including rainbow trout, carp and tilapia.
Live fish are preferred as these allow the shoebill to use its collapsing technique to hunt as it would in the wild.
Shoebills require access to fresh water for drinking after they have swallowed their prey, and seek pools that are deep enough to be able to submerge their beak in.
Shoebill stork foraging for food in the shallow water
Crocodiles are not part of a shoebill’s staple diet, but if it spots a relatively small crocodile (up to 1 m/3 ft 3 in in length), it may try its luck. The shoebill’s powerful beak enables it to firmly grip larger prey, which may be thrashing about trying to free itself.
Despite their intimidating ‘death stare’, there are no reports of shoebills ever attacking a human, let alone eating one.
Shoebills are reported to be tolerant of humans in close proximity to their nest sites, and rather than them being a risk to human life, the opposite is likely to be closer to the truth, with humans among the species’ top predators.
Shoebill eating an eel - instead of chewing, Shoebills toss their prey into the air before swallowing
Ducks aren’t the preferred food source for shoebill storks, but this does not mean they are off the menu. Shoebills will hunt anything suitable that enters the swamplands they are staking out, and if the opportunity arises to swoop and catch ducks or other young waterbirds, then it is likely they will give it their best shot.
Shoebills lay two eggs per clutch, but only one hatchling will normally survive. There is no evidence that the non-surviving chick is eaten by its sibling or parents.
The stronger chick will target and harass its weaker nest-mate, typically ending in the death of the unfortunate less-dominant bird.
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