While nature never ceases to surprise us with its infinite variations, the shoebill stork (Balaeniceps rex) is a creature whose looks are wilder than most. This African bird’s enormous size (it stands up to 5 feet tall) and huge shoe-shaped bill have led it to be described as the “most terrifying bird in the world” by the Audubon Society.
Other names for the strange-looking creature include the “whalehead” and the “whaleheaded stork,” giving an idea of just how odd this prehistoric-looking bird is.
In addition to their bizarre appearance, shoebill storks are no pushovers. In fact, along with large-sized fish, these swamp-hunting storks have been known to devour snakes, freshwater eels, Nile monitor lizards, and, most shockingly, even baby Nile crocodiles.
The shoebill stork’s primary habitat is in the wetlands of central Africa, stretching from Sudan in the north all the way to Zambia in the south. The birds need shallow, wet areas with vegetation that provide good habitat for their favorite prey: fish and small reptiles.
Their hunting behavior is one of the species’s most notable traits, next to their giant bills. Shoebill storks are famous for making themselves like “statues,” standing completely immobile for long periods of time with their feet submerged in the water, before finally striking with their powerful bill.
“Clamping down on its prey, the bird will start to swing its massive head back and forth, tipping out whatever stuff it doesn’t want to eat,” the Audubon society notes. “When there’s nothing but lungfish or crocodile left, the Shoebill will give it a quick decapitation with the sharp edges of the bill.”
As if this weren’t all impressive enough, the shoebill’s massive size makes its countenance even more formidable. Their average height rivals that of children, from 3.5 feet to 4.6 feet; while their wingspan is twice as long as that. “This means that when a shoebill spreads its wings, it has a bigger wingspan than Shaquille O’Neal (Wingspan of 7.5 feet),” Uganda Safari Experts notes.
The bird’s bill, which has the same curvature of the footwear for which it is named, is also exceedingly large. While the Australian pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) holds the Guiness World Record for the longest bill at 13–18 and a half inches (34–37 cm) long, the shoebill stork’s comes in at third-longest, which in some cases has a bigger circumference than its pelican counterparts.
For a bird that is otherwise very good at staying still and being quiet, shoebill storks have a strange habit called “bill-clattering,” shared by other stork species. This machine-gun- or jackhammer-like sound is done by adults “when greeting each other at the nest, but young shoebills also perform the bill-clatter,” according to Animal Diversity.
This unique mixture of characteristics naturally makes shoebill storks an object of fascination for scientists and birdwatchers. Unfortunately, their docility toward humans not only means that birders can get close, but it also means that poachers can take advantage.
These storks have relatively few other predators besides humans, who destroy their wetland habitats in order to build or channel water, or capture their chicks for exotic pets, as well as fishermen who believe the birds will harm their livelihoods. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists them as “vulnerable,” with just 3,300–5,300 mature specimens left.
Fortunately, local people in Zambia who depend on wildlife tourism along with the nonprofit organization African Parks are stepping up to protect this unique stork. As reported by the Audubon Society, by paying fishermen to monitor the populations and keep an eye out for poachers, they have managed to help safeguard breeding pairs and increase the overall population.
This is good news for bird watchers, though perhaps bad news for the prey that will never see those huge bills coming for them until it’s too late.