Shoebill Stork — 9 Amazing Facts About The Terrifying Shoebill Bird

The shoebill stork (Balaeniceps rex) is a large, frightening bird that looks like something from the pre-historic era

Left side shoebill shot while among greenery

The shoebill is a ‘stork’, known as the “world’s most terrifying bird,” and we can see why!

This large ugly dinosaur-like bird is, therefore, referred to as ‘Whalehead’ due to its oversized beak.

However, it’s not just its looks that are hard to believe, it also has a big character to go with it.

LocationEast Africa
DietMainly Fish
Fun FactThey are the cats of the dog world
Other NamesWhalehead, Balaeniceps rex
Life Span35 years
Conservation StatusVulnerable

Shoebill storks are elusive, solitary birds of prey found in and around Uganda. They are often at the top of a birding tourists list.

These tall birds inhabit freshwater swamps and can be observed silently waiting in tall grass for their prey.

Many misconceptions surround the shoebill stork, the most popular (would you believe) being that the shoebill is not actually a stork. Here are some more!

1. They will beat you in a staring contest

up close shoebill with scary eyes

Shoebill storks AKA Balaeniceps rex’s really stand out in the wetlands; they are huge and have enormous beaks which resemble Dutch wooden clogs. They also aren’t as agile as other birds, and because of this, their hunting techniques slightly differ from their smaller cousins.

Shoebills will stand either in the water or another hiding place, this bird is virtually motionless for hours on end with their bills placed on their necks. This, along with their bright golden eyes, is a perfect recipe for a chilling death stare. They will wait as long as it takes for the ideal moment to break their cover and capture their prey.

2. Shoebills are absolutely huge animals

shoebill stork from right side

As mentioned before, Shoebill birds are enormous. On average, they grow 4 to 5 feet tall and have an impressive wingspan of over 8 feet! They will use their large wings to intimidate predators, fly and keep their balance. This is essential as due to the shoebills storks size, they often lose their balance when standing on only two legs.

The shoebill stork has the slowest flap rate of any bird at only 150 flaps per minute, but it works. It will fly with its head and neck folded backward, which helps increase aerodynamics and flight duration.

shoebill close up with furry head

There has been debate among naturalists for centuries regarding where shoebill storks should be placed in the animal family trees. On the one hand, their vocal organ closely resembles that of a heron. Herons belong in the Pelecaniformes, along with pelicans and boobies. Yet, on the other hand, these birds do not have the same specialized feathers that herons have to help with their preening. Therefore Shoebills must be pelicans and belong to the Ciconiiformes family. It is a certainty that this birdlies in one of these two families, but nobody can agree which one.

4. They are solitary creatures

shoebill from behind in grass

Shoebill storks are on their own almost all year round. They live alone, eat alone and the only time the stork is with another is when it’s mating. For instance, once a male and female are together, they will still hunt and eat separately. It is a scarce sight ever to see two of the bird working together.

5. This bird has a fearsome reputation and has the history to prove it

shoebill mid-squawk

This monstrous bird will even attack a crocodile if need be. Living in the marsh can be dangerous; there are predators everywhere, and food can be rare. Firstly, they become aggressive and will fight off both small and large animals. Shoebills, therefore, have no problem attacking an animal bigger than them for any number of reasons, even simply being in their line of sight, including crocodiles.

A Victorian photographer and zoologist named Stanley S. Flower had to learn the hard way how mean and aggressive this large bird can be “The shoebill is capable of inflicting a mighty bite.

6. These birds are often silent, but can also be very loud when needed

Shoebill stork from the left side up close

Being on their own all the time and being completely silent when hunting, the shoebill bird has no reason to make noise. Despite this, when it comes to mating, they will release a loud call to help attract a partner bird. The sound is a series of boisterous popping noises that sounds like a machine gun, nothing like other birds.

7. Shoebill storks have huge shoe-shaped beaks

far away shot of shoebill

The bird’s beak is the 3rd longest out of any species in the world, stretching up 24cm in length and 20cm in width; it can be more than a quarter the size of their bodies. It is shoe-shaped. And as a result, it was given the name ‘shoebill’, and resembles that of a baleen whale hence the nickname ‘Whalehead.’

The shape of their beak has evolved all stork species to assist them in eating small fish and other animals in a single gulp. The tip of their beak curves down to form a hook. And it is this sharp curve that is used to pierce through the bodies of their prey, which can sometimes be other birds.

8. Young shoebill storks will often attack each other

right side very up close shoebill

This is more common than you think among larger birds. As they are solitary creatures, shoebills prefer to be alone and therefore have territorial behaviors. As a result, when more than one is born in the same nest, the birds have been known to compete with each other for their mother’s attention. Commonly, the larger birds will force the smaller bird, its own offspring, to flee from the nest and live independently.

9. Shoebills live in African countries such as Uganda and Rwanda

The shoebill is endemic to Africa, meaning the bird is regularly found there. They are predominantly found in the freshwater swamps of the central and eastern countries. They can be found in Southern Sudan, Western Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, and the Northern parts of Zambia. Although there have been sightings of the stork in the surrounding countries like Kenya, Ethiopia, and more. In addition, the big bird doesn’t migrate and has very limited seasonal movement due to food availability, habitat changes, and human disturbances.

The largest population of wild shoebills live in Uganda where a record of 1000. Here, they can be found in areas like the Mabamba Swamp, Lake Mburo national park, the Queen Elizabeth national park and more.

Check out this video, getting up close and personal with the mighty shoebill stork:

Written by Joe Kahlo

After years of writing in the financial industry, Joe was finally able to focus his writing on what he loves, Animals!