In the wide wetlands of East and Central Africa, from southern Sudan through Congo - Kinshasa, Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania to the north of Zambia lives a shoebill stork- a wonderfully unique bird with a beak resembling clogs.
The Balaeniceps Rex
The scientific name of the species is Balaeniceps Rex, which means king with a whale's head. The great English ornithologist John Gould expertly determined this bird species in the middle of the 19th century, describing it as the most unusual bird he has ever seen. At that time, the first specimens were brought to Europe.
Among the tropical swamps of East Africa, stretching from Sudan and western Ethiopia to Zambia lives one of the most mysterious and unusual birds of the African continent - the genus Balaeniceps rex, or whale head, whale-headed stork, or shoe-billed stork.
The Shoebill Stork – A Unique Creature
Shoebill stork is a bird of the order Ciconiiformes, the only member of the whale family (Balaenicipitidae).
The name "Shoebill stork" leads to an incorrect conclusion about the true nature of this bird. It was long mistakenly believed to be a genus until it was determined that they were related to pelicans and herons. The resemblance to pelicans is, among other things, the small tuft on the back of the head. Hence, they belong to the taxonomic order Nesita, i.e., Pelecaniformes. The most related existing species is the Hamerkop, or Scopus Umbretta.
Combining the characteristics of several birds at once - stork, heron, and pelican, it remains the owner of a unique look, whose main decoration is a long massive beak, shape, and size reminiscent of a shoe. This beautiful beak, about 23 centimeters long and 10 centimeters wide, serves as the main fishing tool - an activity in which the Shoebill stork is an expert.
Taxonomically they are close to the genus by anatomical similarity. However, they have many features in common with herons - a long hind finger located at the same level as the others, a reduced coccygeal gland, the development of 2 giant wings, and one intestine.
An Unusual And Distinctive Looking Bird
The Shoebill stork or Whalehead (genus Shoebill stork) - translated from Arabic means "father of shoes." Indeed, not a single bird has such a large beak-like it. A gigantic bird, its average height is 1.2 m, wingspan 2.3 m, and weight 4 - 7 kg.
The highest specimens are more than 1.5 m tall, and the lowest is about 110 cm. Males are larger than females and, on average, weigh about 700 grams. The length from the tail to the beak is more than 1m.
The most striking feature of the Shoebill stork is the rounded beak supported by a massive skull. Its dimensions are 23 by 10 cm. The short and thick neck helps the bird to cope with the large brim. Thanks to the sharp edges of the jaws, it can cut, pick up and grind food. It takes enormous amounts of water and breaks through the plants to reach the catch.
Long toes allow the body's weight to be more easily distributed so that the Shoebill stork can move without problems through the dense plant world. The feathers are bluish-grey; in the area of the wings, it is darker while the belly is slightly lighter.
The coloration of the whales is bluish-grey, and on the back of the head, a small fluffy crest and the legs are bright.
When the day is hot, adults spray the young and eggs with water to cool them. They are most numerous where the oxygen level in the water is low because bivalve fish, which are the favorite food of these birds, have to come to the surface more often.
Eating Habits: A Dangerous Predator
The Shoebill stork is well adapted to life in the swamps because its long paws with broad toes allow easy movement on the muddy ground. It can stand motionless in shallow water for a long time. The bird is most active at dawn but often hunts during the day as well.
For their main food, these birts eat protopterus, catfish, or tilapia, and whaling is ambushed, patiently waiting for the fish to be closer to the surface of the water. It stands almost motionless, its head bowed, ready at any moment to grab the victim with its massive beak.
In addition to fish, the Shoebill storks feed on amphibians, water snakes, turtles, rodents, and even young crocodiles. To avoid getting entangled in the dense densities of wetland vegetation, whale heads try to stay close to areas cleaned by elephants and hippos. The largest number of fish is collected along artificial canals that flow into the lakes.
They rarely eat turtles, rodents, snails, and other birds. They go hunting on their own. At the same time, they hide and lurk for the victims from the ambush in the shallows, after which they rush to the prey at high speed.
A sharp hook at its end holds the prey firmly, separating it at the same time. Also, by moving the jaw, it tears off the prey's head before it eats it. The essential items in its diet are various types of African fish; they also like to feed on snakes, frogs, and lizards and do not hesitate to attack a baby crocodile.
Seeing the next prey, the predator immediately crosses its wings, runs into the water, and stabs it with a sharp hook, leaving no chance of escape. At such moments, a giant flying bird with a wingspan of about two meters is an unforgettable sight.
Mating is done in the hot months when there is less precipitation. They lay two or three whitish eggs among aquatic plants. The male and female lay eggs and take part in raising the birds. After thirteen weeks, the offspring leave the nest, although it takes some time before they can fly.
Little is known about the mating behavior of this bird in the wild. In Sudan, for example, it begins with the end of the rainy season. In captivity, the ritual of mating Shoebill storks consists of nodding and lengthening the neck, clicking the beak, and making loud sounds.
The Shoebill stork nest is a vast platform whose base reaches a diameter of 2.5 m. The materials for the nest are papyrus and reed stalks. The nest pot is lined with dry grass. Within five days, the female lays 1 - 3 eggs, which are usually heated at night. The chicks hatch after about 30 days. In the afternoon, parents share concerns about raising and meeting their needs.
The whale nest is a large flat platform of stems and reeds but always well hidden in secluded places.
For the same purpose, they follow a swamp antelope, which is called a sitatunga, because these animals, when moving, scatter fish. From papyrus and grass, the male and female make nests to which they add so much material that they sink into the swampy soil.
Initially, the chickens are covered with a soft gray gown. Their beaks are tiny, but they already have a sharp, hooked tip. Of all the elongated chickens, as a rule, only one survives. Its parents feed it half-digested food. Within a month, the young Shoebill stork begins to swallow larger pieces of food.
It stays in the nest for two months, and even an adult chick often returns "home." Only at the age of 4 months does it become completely independent.
The Shoebill stork is a smooth, inert bird that is not very friendly but can often be found in pairs and sometimes small groups. Their heads often set up an observation spot on floating plant islands and sometimes go into the water so deep that the water washes their belly.
Some are characterized by the ability not to fly fast but to run. Some species can mimic the human voice, and others stand out for their unusual appearance. One thing is for sure – these birds can be a surprise.
The whale's head can be immobile for a long time.
Shoebill storks are solitary birds. They rarely feed together, even the mating individuals. Bearing in mind that they are enormous and depend on air currents, these birds do not decide to fly easily. Their wings are straight in flight, and their necks are set back. They are slow flyers.
They are usually silent creatures. However, to communicate, they clap their beaks and can produce loud noises and something reminiscent of the mooing of cows. The chatter intensifies in situations when their nest is endangered.
Shoebill storks are pretty rare birds. It is estimated that there are 5,000 - 10,000 Shoebill storks, which brings them close to the status of endangerment. Humans are destroying the habitat of these birds as well as their nests.
In the afternoon, it hides in a pile of coastal reeds and papyrus, which grow abundantly in Sudan. It is also found in Uganda and Congo. The whale head rarely goes to open places. It is known to be phlegmatic and lazy.
If you approach it closely, it will not move and will not take off. Sometimes the loud laughter and crackling of the beak betray where it is.
There is often great hostility among the cubs; it happens that one bird drives another to death. Parents are content to have only one cub survive.