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Safari Africa Animal Fact Sheet
Balaeniceps rex

East-Central Africa; southern Sudan (White Nile Sudd), Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia

The shoebill is a solitary species, rarely found in groups. Breeding pairs may be seen foraging on opposite ends of territory, but rarely together. Shoebills are often silent, but participate in "bill-clattering", a behavior characteristic of storks. Adult shoebills use the behavior as a greeting at the nest, but young shoebills can be heard making this vocalization as well, in addition to a "hiccupping" voice when calling for food. Food permitting, shoebills are non-migratory. However in some regions, they can be found moving seasonally between feeding and nesting zones. Generally regarded as reluctant to fly, adult shoebills can be seen soaring on thermals over their territory. They can be found roosting in trees, but are more commonly found on the ground near water. They forage in shallow, aquatic environments, commonly surrounded by papyrus and grasses. If water is too deep, they will stand on a floating platform of vegetation. Walks slowly, then pounces beak-first with whole body at prey. Favorite foraging spots include waters low in oxygen, where fish must surface more often. Shoebills are very docile and tolerative of human presence.

Other common names for Shoebills include Shoe-billed Stork, Whale-Headed Stork, Bog Bird. Though most consider it as a stork, the Shoebill's antecedents are unclear, and no relatives are known. Shoebills are afforded their own family, Balaenicipitidae. Although shoebills share some characteristics of storks, they are more like the herons in many of their behaviors and physiological features, yet also share common characteristics with pelicans. The population of Shoebills is thought to number 8,000-10,000, but is difficult to estimate given the swampy/marshy habitat. Their declining population is due to habitat loss from agriculture, fires, and colonization. An increase in human-related disturbances and hunting also contributes to their decline. Reproductive frequency in the wild is slow, and has been difficult in captivity.

On Christmas Day 2009, Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo became the first wildlife institution in the North America to hatch a shoebill stork chick, and just the second institution worldwide. The species’ numbers in captivity are few, with only 12 adult shoebills in North American wildlife institutions, four of which are housed at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. 

Habitat: Wetlands areas; freshwater swamps, dense marshes and areas of papyrus, reed, and grass beds.
Diet: Primarily carnivorous; preys on fish such as lungfish, tilapia, and bichirs. Will also consume small reptiles, such as water snakes, frogs, monitor lizards, and small turtles.
Status: IUCN: Vulnerable. Listed under Appendix II of CITES. Protected by law in Africa.
Approximate Dimensions of Adult:

Height: 115 to 140 cm (3.5 to 4 feet)
Beak: 12 in long & 5 in wide-resembles shape of a wooden shoe.

Lifespan: Up to 30+ years in captivity.
Males & females are similar in color and appearance, with males slightly larger than females and with longer bills. Both have feathers gray in color with white tufts sticking out from back of head. Beak is tan in color and may have dark blotches. Legs are long and skinny, a characteristic typical of wading birds.
Reproduction & Offspring: Shoebill breeding is seasonally variable, but generally related to local water levels. Breeding pairs are still regarded as solitary and are only rarely seen together. Nest sites are established and guarded from animals and other shoebills. Nests are placed either on platforms of floating vegetation, or on true islands. Initially, the selected area is trampled. Then plant matter is gathered and sewn into the substrate, strengthening the nesting area. Shoebills generally lay between one and three eggs, normally two, at intervals of up to five days. Generally only one egg will end up surviving to fledge. Eggs measure 80-90 x 57-61 mm. Incubation lasts about 30 days and is shared by both parents. During this time, the eggs are turned and kept cool by dowsing with water and adding wet weeds on top. Upon hatching, chicks are cared for by both parents. Fledging occurs at about 95-105 days. Sexual maturity estimated at around three years, but is yet unknown.


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