THE SHOEBILL STORK
By Julius Abigaba & Irene Nakalanzi
Uganda not only has a great diversity of wildlife but also a profusion of bird species. Uganda’s amazing diversity of habitats and this richness is reflected in the available 1056 bird species that include the unique but rare shoebill stork. The Shoebill is one of the most sought after birds in Uganda. Uganda attaches economic value to the shoebill, which is an important asset for ecotourism.
As its appearance shows this “Whale headed Stork” was once thought to be a relative of the storks but its ability to fly with its neck retracted suggests affinity with pelicans or herons.
Did you know the name shoebill came from the Arabic word “Abu markub” which means one with a shoe? This refers to the bill of the bird. Its fame dates back to early civilizations. The pre-historic looking bird appears in wall paintings and hieroglyphics of the ancient Egyptians.
The Shoebill stands about 110-140 cm tall and can weigh up to 7 kg. I told you they were a large stork-like bird but did you think they would be 5 feet tall? The toes are 16.8-18.5cm long and completely divided; the claw of the hind toe is larger than those on the fore-toes. The large shoe-like bill of this aptly named bird is usually about 20 cm long by 20 cm wide. Why is this significant? These dimensions give the Shoebill the largest bill of all the bird species on this great planet of ours. On closer examination, on the head appears an ashy grey crown, the bill is yellowish, blotched with dark grey spot, very sharp edges in mandibles allow capturing and cutting prey before swallowing. The position of the grayish-white large eyes gives the bird an almost sinister look and binocular vision.
The bird is classified in the Kingdom: Animalia, Phylum Chordata, Class Aves, Order: Ciconiiformes, Family: Balaenicipitidae, Genus: Balaeniceps, Species: Balaeniceps rex
Adult Shoebill’s are dressed entirely in a bluish-grey and white color, while the juveniles in a slightly darker and browner color. The female is similar in all respects but slightly smaller than the male.
If you want to check out these tall birds then you will need to make a trip to East and central Africa where you can find them in swamps from southern Sudan, through Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, to Eastern Zaire, all the way to Zambia and lastly to Botswana.
Habitat and feeding.
The species is strictly territorial and requires about 3km square of suitable habitat. Shoebills prefer swamps, marshes and in particular floating vegetation or sudd, formed notably, though not exclusively, by papyrus. They generally keep to the more open areas, to avert problems with take-off that canopies of pure papyrus and tall grass would cause. The shoebill feeds mostly at night by standing completely still and then ambushing prey, the diet of the Shoebill is usually items that can be found in water. It likes hunting in muddy waters, feasting upon fish (African lungfish-protopterus aethiopicus) which are their favorite, among a variety of larger and smaller fish, frogs, water snakes, monitor lizards, turtles, The shoebill is a large enough bird that it also preys on young crocodiles. Man, crocodiles have it rough, either their skin is used to make boots or they are consumed by a large shoe. They must have a legitimate fear for footwear, so too do rats and young waterfowls that fall prey to the outsized jaws. Shoebills have a funny way of feeding. When they are attacking their prey this big bird has to put its wings back otherwise they would lose their balance. Trust me there is nothing more embarrassing than falling over as you are trying to catch your prey.
For most part the Shoebill is a solitary animal, they spend most of their days just standing around looking for food, you think they would want to have a friend to hang out with. Seriously, they will barely move when they are hunting except to move their head slightly or to switch their feet around. How boring would that be?
They will only pair up as the breeding season approaches usually in the months of April-June, the pair start engaging in bill clacking courtship prior to mating. A ground nester, the female shoebill deposits its one or two, sometimes three chalky white eggs at intervals of up to five days in a nest of aquatic vegetation which measures up to 2.5cm across. When the nests are built in the swamp, supplementation may be necessary to counteract sinking; sometimes the nest is built on a solid mound. The pair incubates the eggs for about a month. On very hot days, parents swallow cool water and regurgitate it, spit it up on the eggs to keep them cool. When the chicks hatch, the parents care for them by shading them from the sun, cooling them with regurgitated water, protecting them from predators, and getting food for them. Usually one chick survives; the surviving chick or chicks will fledge only after about 104 days. During the first 35 days, they can’t stand and are brooded by the adults. Shoebills reproduce slowly, requiring many years before becoming reproductively active. They are very shy when breeding and can easily abandon their nests with eggs or young at slightest provocation. They have a life span of 30+ years in captivity and 25- in the wild.
According to the Beastly Countdown on Animal planet, the bird has the distinction of being number one ugliest creature on earth!!!
Many of the natives are very superstitious, and fervently believe in the stories of monsters in the swamps waiting to attack intruders. It is not difficult to imagine that a quick flyby of one of these large birds in the dark could send one running back to camp with a story of a near miss by a flying demon…….!!
Do you think so?? I think it’s beautiful the way it is in its own way……
However, the shoebill is not so aggressive towards humans; in fact they try to avoid humans as much as possible.
So why don’t you get a chance on one of your holidays in Uganda and have a great adventure tracking the shoebills in one of their last remaining habitats; Lake Kyoga sudd (major stronghold), Mabamba and Makanaga swamp on the shores of lake Victoria in Mpigi District, Murchison Falls National Park along the banks of River Nile, Lake Bisina wetland, Lake Opeta wetland, Lake Kikorongo in Queen Elizabeth National Park, plus the southern fringe of Lake Albert that adjoins with the Semliki wildlife reserve.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List Category places the shoebill stork on a vulnerable list. This widespread but rare species is listed as vulnerable because it is estimated to have a single small population within a broad extent of occurrence; this population is undergoing a continuing decline.
We can attribute the endangerment of the shoebill to the accelerating transformation of its habitat by the growing human population. As the population increases, we have transformed, degraded and destroyed roughly half of Uganda’s wetlands for human use. Shoebills are also hunted for food around Lakes Opeta and Bisina and on the northern fringes of Lake Kyoga.
Papyrus swamps are destroyed by cattle and fire, nesting areas burned to make easier fishing and hunting accesses for people, birds are caught and sold, shoebills are persecuted around Lake Kyoga and Mabamba as communities there believe that sighting a shoebill casts a bad omen on their fishing endeavors. “Whenever we met it while going for fishing, we would go back because that meant you would catch no fish,” says one old man at Mabamba.”
The Shoebill is protected by national and international law. It belongs to Appendix 2 under the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). This implies that trade in shoebills is illegal. The Wildlife statute also prohibits the capture of shoebills for any harmful activity. Despite the laws in place, shoebills are still exposed to various threats.
It’s little no wonder that shoebills are disappearing and ecosystems are being destroyed.
It’s suggested that a future priority for this bird might be to create community-based environmental awareness programmes focused on generating national pride in the shoebill to discourage hunting and the values attached to wetands. Indeed, recognition of the shoebill as one of the great African species can only serve to aid conservation efforts to save this unusual and cherished bird. It is also a priority to determine its current status in the extensive swamps and to put an end to the live trade of this globally threatened species.
In both cases the conservation of these rare bird species is not only critical for biodiversity in Uganda but also for enhancing the livelihoods of local communities through eco-tourism.
The Foundation is a private not for profit organization established to promote the conservation of shoe-bill storks in Uganda through protecting their habitat, the wetlands. All our efforts are to restore the population of shoe-bills in Uganda
Our mandated roles include: Conservation education, captive breeding of shoe-bills as a conservation tool and Research and Monitoring.
For more information, please contact:
The Shoebill Stork Foundation,
49, Nakiwogo Road, Entebbe.
Tel: (031) 2515164. Mobile: +256 775 701515