Shoebill are so badass that they eat crocodiles. Yep, here is an African bird that hunts snakes, monitor lizards and crocodiles.
Not only that, they make a noise that sounds like a machine gun on auto fire. They look like some kind of prehistoric leftover, with a jagged shoe-shaped bill that seems to come from fiction.
This is probably the most bizarre bird in the world. Here are 16 amazing facts.
1. Shoebill are enormous birds
Before questioning the crocodile diet you need to understand just how big these birds are.
Shoebill measure over a metre in height and most mature specimens reach 1.3 metres. Measure from the bill to the beak and that’s also a good 1.3 metres.
Males hit the scales at a solid 5-6 kg, with the biggest individuals coming in at over 7 kg (15 lb). Females are only slightly smaller and really, a bird that big is always going to be unpredictable.
2. A 2 ½ metre wingspan
Swans are scary enough and they don’t have a razor-like beak.
With a wingspan of over 2 ½ metres the shoebill can fly effortlessly across the African skies, although it doesn’t tend to fly very far.
3. One of the slowest flapping rates
We’re getting to the really cool stuff about crocodiles soon, honestly. But check this out first. Shoebill have one of the slowest flapping rates of any bird other than large storks.
A hummingbird flaps its wings 4200 a minute. A shoebill can only do 150 flaps a minute and that is at full speed. Usually they flap for seven seconds, glide for seven, flap for seven, glide for seven, etc etc.
4. Shoebill are stealthy hunters
When shoebill hunt they know exactly how to find what they want. Instead of wasting energy flying around, a shoebill will find a prime spot of swamp and play dead.
They stand motionless, not moving a single feather. And then bam! The crocodile has been captured in a violent and instant strike!
When prey comes within range the shoebill lunges forward, opens its beak and grabs everything in range. That includes mud, water, grass and its target.
Remember, these birds are large enough to pass the height test for any theme park ride. Imagine a 1.3 metre bird lunging at you with a razored beak!
5. Shoebill decapitate their prey
These giant birds are named after their huge bills (also known as a beak). It must have been named by colonialists who believed the bill was so large it could fit a shoe.
This bill culminates in a powerful hooked-over culmen that’s capable of piercing the skin of its prey. When the shoebill launches an attack it literally impales the prey inside its mouth.
Now comes the gruesome part. With the prey firmly clamped the bird violently swings its head back and forth. This will remove all the mud and water that was inhaled, and lead to the dramatic conclusion: decapitation.
Using that razor-sharp beak the shoebill rips the head of its prey, before preceding to swallow its victim.
6. Yes, shoebills really do eat crocodiles
The remarkable thing is that crocodiles aren’t even the largest of their prey. A baby Nile crocodile isn’t even a challenge for these hunting birds.
Shoebills have also been known to hunt and kill red lechwe, a semi-aquatic antelope that lives in the swamps of Botswana and Zambia.
Fully-grown red lechwe weigh over 100 kg. They will use the water to stay clear of predators. Baby red lechwe only weigh a few kilograms and they may end up wading straight into a shoebill trap.
Do note that these shoebill versus red lechwe reports are unconfirmed. But even just to suggest such a thing is an indication of how successful these birds can be.
7. The classic shoebill diet
That’s not to say that large antelope and crocodiles are part of their everyday diet. Shoebills do have strong stomachs and can wolf down just about any animal.
However, they mostly hunt fish. Among their preferred victims are catfish, lungfish and tilapia. Along with these piscivorous habits the shoebill will prey on turtles, snails, rodents, waterfowl, frogs, water snakes, monitor lizards and nile crocodiles.
8. Shoebill are mostly native to tropical East Africa
Okay, it all sounds a little violet, but so is watching a lion devour a zebra carcass and that’s a premier highlight of a safari. So where can you admire these incredible carnivorous birds?
Shoebill prefer a tropical climate and live around the water, typically swamps but also deltas and muddy rivers.
Mostly they inhabit Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. There is also an isolated population in the Okavango Delta.
9. A shoebill’s best friend is a hippo
Over the centuries they’ve developed a great relationship with hippos. The four-legged giants stir up mud and silt, which forces fish towards the surface where there is more oxygen. That puts them in shoebill hunting range.
10. They’ve been revered since the time of the ancient Egyptians
Shoebills appear in hieroglyphic artwork of the ancient Egyptians. It’s likely that they lived in Egypt 3000 years ago, but were hunted to extinction there.
11. In Arabic the shoebill is known as the father of a slipper
Even the Persians and Ottomans knew about this weird bird. They called it Abu-Markub, translated as the father of a slipper.
This name is a little better than some of the other English names. Shoebills are still commonly known as the whale-headed stork or simply whalehead.
12. They sound like a machine gun
Shoebill are solitary animals and are silent for most of the day. But when coming into contact with another bird they go straight in with the sound of an automatic machine gun.
It’s actually known as bill-clattering but it really does sound like a weapon of war.
13. Shoebill deliberately crap on their own legs
Some animals just can’t help defecating on themselves. Such as cows and camels and all other animals that crap while they are on the move.
Shoebills choose to do it. Defecating on their legs is an expert technique for staying cool. Their faeces is mostly liquid. Warm blood is used to help evaporate the poop, leaving cooler blood to pass through the rest of the bird.
14. Shoebills are monogamous birds
It’s not all weird-looking. These birds can be quite cute as well.
They form monogamous pairs from an early age and aggressively defend their partners against rivals. Getting the best breeding territory is very important so shoebills will regularly fight with others to protect their spot.
Both the male and female get involved in building the nest and looking after the eggs. They take turns in guarding and feeding the nestling, regurgitating entire fish for the newborn.
Yet, while shoebill will lay two or three eggs, only one will ever survive.
15. The violent behaviour of shoebill siblings
This is Darwin’s theory of natural selection at its darkest. Usually the eldest chick is strongest. It will attack and bully its younger sibling, in a deliberate and systematic manner.
This behaviour is fully supported by the parents. They accept that it’s only possible to raise one youngster. In fact, the second and third eggs are only ever intended to be backups in case something happens to the first.
David Attenborough brilliantly narrates this shoebill behaviour in the 2013 BBC series Africa.
16. These prehistoric birds can live for 35 years
They appear to be a bird from science fiction and their behaviour is far from the charming ways of other birds.
But shoebills are mightily successful. Their lifespan is 30-35 years in the wild. Just imagine how many baby crocodiles one may have eaten over that time.
Chicks are only fully independent after three to four years, when they will venture off and find their own territory.
Seeing a Shoebill on a Safari
Shoebill weren’t categorised by Western ornithologists until 1851, yet they have quickly risen to become one of the most sought after birds to see in Africa.
To encounter one in the wild is a special experience, especially to watch one hunting in a swamp.
If you do see one on a safari you will appreciate that these birds are not to be approached. Anyone standing too close to a shoebill may soon regret it. But nobody would get close. See a shoebill in the wild and you can appreciate what it means when a bird stands 1.3 metres tall and can decapitate a crocodile.
These are awesome creatures and their survival is threatened. Let’s hope that many people can encounter them on a safari, for many decades to come.