The shoebill stork (Balaeniceps rex) also known as whalehead, whale-headed stork, or shoe-billed stork, is a large, prehistoric-looking bird named for its clogged-shaped bill used for catching fish - particularly the lungfish. These birds are not widespread, found in only small regions of one continent. They have specific habitat requirements, which contribute to their critically endangered status.
Shoebills only inhabit freshwater wetlands and swamps in east-central Africa. The majority of shoebill populations live in wetland areas in South Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, and northeastern Zambia.
Populations of these unique birds are, unfortunately, diminishing. Globally, only an estimated 5,000-8,000 shoebills are believed to exist. Their decline is primarily due to the loss of already limited habitat. We will discuss the habitat and conservation status of the shoebill in further detail throughout the article.
One of the best places to see Shoebill Storks is in Uganda
The distribution range of the shoebill stork is quite small. These birds are native to the marshlands of east-central Africa, occurring around the White Nile Sudd in South Sudan, the Malagarasi wetlands of Tanzania, northern Uganda, Zambia, and the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Shoebill stork habitat primarily includes extensive wetlands and marshes that contain papyrus, cattails, reeds, and grasses. The stork will also inhabit marshy lakes and floodplains that do not grow papyrus, such as the Malagarasi wetlands in Tanzania.
Shoebills require floating vegetation islands or mats (referred to as sudd) for nesting and fishing, particularly when residing in areas where the water is deep. They will also hunt in open areas, water channels, and occasionally rice fields.
Fish are the primary food source for these storks, typically captured as they surface for air. Lungfish and catfish are among the most common species eaten by the shoebill - other fish, reptiles, amphibians, and occasionally rodents are also frequently consumed.
Shoebill Stork taking off with fish in its beak
Seeing the critically endangered shoebill stork in the wild is a rare opportunity. The birds are confined to relatively small and remote regions of east Africa. There are opportunities to see these birds in captivity - a few zoos have small populations of three or four shoebills.
Shoebill storks are not native to and do not occur in the United States in the wild. However, there are a few in captivity at zoos. The only place in the US where people can see shoebill storks is Zoo Tampa - in Tampa, Florida.
Shoebill Stork tossing a fish in the air
The shoebill stork is most common amongst the freshwater papyrus swamps of South Sudan in east-central Africa. They also live in the marshlands of northern Uganda, western Tanzania, northern Zambia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The best place to see a shoebill stork is Uganda. The freshwater lakes and swamps in these regions provide the foraging and nesting habitat preferred by this species. The shoebill is particularly popular around the River Nile and Lake Albert.
These special storks are a sight to behold in the wild. Adults can reach nearly 5 feet tall and weigh around 11 pounds. They look as if they stepped right out of Jurassic times into the world we know today. The shoebill is usually silent but occasionally gives a startling, raucous cry that sounds particularly prehistoric.
A pair of Shoebills in Uganda
Shoebill storks are non-migratory. They remain in or near their nesting habitats during winter and throughout all seasons. These birds exhibit minimal seasonal movements in general, only moving when food becomes scarce or when habitat is disturbed.
The shoebill stork is primarily a sedentary species. They remain in their extensive freshwater swamp and floodplain habitats throughout east-central Africa year-round. There is evidence of short-distance movements between breeding and feeding grounds or during changes in water level. Otherwise, the stork only moves when displaced from its habitat.
Close up portrait of a Shoebill Stork
Shoebill storks are diurnal, meaning they forage during the day and rest at night. Because these birds often live in areas where water levels are high, they sleep on floating vegetation in the marsh or wetlands.
Shoebill storks are considered critically endangered. They have specific habitat requirements, including their partial dependence on papyrus wetlands. The stork's population trends are negative due to disturbance and habitat destruction throughout its limited range.
The spread of agricultural development is the primary source of habitat loss for Shoebill Storks. Wetlands are drained and papyrus burned to create pasture for grazing livestock. Livestock and human disturbance are key causes of nesting failure in wetland habitat that has not yet been removed. Nest trampling is also a problem affecting the shoebill.
Because the shoebill is a unique and sensitive species, they are highly sought after to trade. Chicks are taken from nests in the wild and often sold to zoos. Perhaps some have good intentions, hoping to help rehabilitate the population. Unfortunately, there is only one known case of this species breeding successfully in captivity.
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