Field guide to shoebills
Shoebills are fascinating pre-historic looking birds that live deep inside the swamps of central and eastern Africa.
Often dubbed the world’s ugliest bird, a closer look at a shoebill will reveal a bird with a permanently pleasant grin, although, admittedly, it does not always look friendly. Because of their extraordinary looks, shoebills are a prize tick for many birders and wildlife lovers. Unfortunately, their remarkable looks also make them very desirable for private collectors and the illegal trade in chicks is threatening populations.
Shoebills are solitary birds that prefer areas sheltered by tall reeds or papyrus. Perfectly adapted to walk on submerged or floating vegetation, they venture into areas that are very difficult to access for people, unless you are a lightweight local fisherman that grew up in the swamps.
Shoebills (Balaeniceps rex) have been assigned to several families in the past. Previously named whalehead or shoe-billed stork, they were considered to be part of the stork family because of the many similarities in breeding habits and displays. Shoebills have also been categorised as part of the heron family, because they fly with retracted necks.
The last attempt to put them into another family was with the pelecaniformes, because of their hooked bill, little pouch and other anatomical features. However, it has been decided that shoebills are actually the only member of their family, a monotypic species.
The hamerkop, another bird with a conspicuous head, but much smaller in size, is its closest relative. All shoebills are considered to be of the same species.
Shoebills are endemic to central-eastern Africa. They only breed in seven countries - South Sudan, western Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, western Tanzania and northern Zambia. We do not know whether there is any migration between these populations. They are largely sedentary birds, spending most of their time in or around their home range, but they are capable of flying long distances if needed.
Shoebills prefer large well-vegetated freshwater swamps with grasses, reeds and papyrus, although they avoid pure papyrus stands because these are not suitable for hunting fish. Mixed vegetation with tall reeds and papyrus also offers shelter from humans and potential predators.
The most remarkable feature of the shoebill is their bill, often compared to a wooden clog. The huge bulbous bill with strong hooked tip and mandibles with sharp edges is an adaptation to aid them catch their prey, fish. They have a large robust head with a crest at the back and piercing yellow eyes.
Shoebills are surprisingly large birds; they can reach between 120cm and 140cm when standing up. They weigh 4 to 7 kilos, and males are slightly taller and heavier than females, although they cannot be distinguished in the field. Shoebills have blue-grey feathers that offer remarkably good camouflage in the swamps. It is their long toes that allow them to walk on submerged and floating vegetation.
Even though shoebills spend most of their time on the ground, their broad wings and a wingspan of more than 2m, allows them to sustain soaring flights.
The preferred prey species of shoebills are catfish, lungfish and several tilapia species. The water on flood plains and underneath floating vegetation is oxygen poor, and fish surface to gulp air, which is when the shoebill benefits.
Shoebills can also catch frogs, water snakes, water monitors and small crocodiles. There is even a single report of a shoebill taking a lechwe calf, an antelope species, but this story is probably a fantastic exaggeration of a close encounter between the two species. Although their beak is huge, they would never be able to swallow such big prey.
Shoebills target quite large fish, larger than most other fish-eating birds, which means that they have few competitors, other than humans. The sizes of prey caught are typically between 15cm and 50cm. A catfish of 50cm can weigh up to 600g - a substantial meal even for a big bird. Water snakes can reach up to 70cm and are fed to the chicks.
Watching a shoebill in the wild is not always the most exciting experience. They generally stand still for long periods, and when they move they do so very, very slowly. Their hunting strategy is all about energy efficiency. They wait patiently for fish to surface, a behaviour known as stalking or lurking, standing still for hours at the same spot observing the holes in the floating vegetation for prey.
However, quite surprisingly, they strike with incredible speed and vigour once a prey surfaces. Shoebills throw themselves onto it, often losing balance and collapsing on the vegetation. If they catch a fish, they either decapitate it to get rid of the thick skull and spines, or swallow the complete fish, head first. Larger prey can take more than 10 minutes to swallow.
After each meal, a shoebill will scoop up some water to drink. They always hunt alone. Other shoebills might be in their vicinity, but they will not interact during foraging and will always be at least 20m apart.
Besides fishing, shoebills engage in little other activity besides some preening and sitting in the vegetation. Getting to shoebills is often a spectacular exercise through the swamps, but after the initial excitement of finding the bird you can expect very little action, unless you have the opportunity to see one catching prey. Shoebills catch an average of 1.5 prey items per day outside of the breeding season, so lots of patience is required.
The shoebill reaches sexual maturity after three or four years. They build their nests on top of floating vegetation, surrounded by tall plants to keep the nest hidden. Nests are able to support the weight of an adult person and need constant maintenance.
Shoebills typically lay two eggs and after about 35 days they both hatch. The stronger of the chicks out-competes its sibling by chasing it from the nest or by taking all the food from the parents. From an evolutionary perspective, the second chick is thought to be a back-up in case something goes wrong with the stronger chick.
Occasionally both chicks manage to stay alive, requiring hard work to meet both their energy requirements. Both parents initially present champed fish to the chick that bites off little pieces. After about 30 days, however, the parents drop prey directly into the nest and the chick will take it from there.
The chick rearing period lasts about 95 days, after which the youngster leaves the nest but will still depend on its parents for food. Chicks gradually learn how to catch their own prey and after about 120 days their parents will move away.
The main threats to shoebills are habitat degradation and loss, and direct persecution by humans. Seasonal fires can burn large areas of the swamp, destroying good habitat. This is especially a problem during breeding, because chicks cannot fly. For this reason they are also vulnerable to trampling by cattle.
Fish is an important protein food source for local communities and the wetlands used by shoebills are also used by humans. Fishermen cause disturbance by moving through a shoebill area. The birds are especially sensitive to disturbance during the breeding season as they are confined to their nest site. Fishermen can take eggs or chicks from nests when they consider shoebills as competitors for fish. For that same reason, shoebills might even be killed.
Because of their extraordinary looks, shoebills are considered to be one of the most desired birds in Africa. Not only do tourists visit swamps to see this remarkable bird, private collectors have a keen interest in them. All trade in shoebills is illegal but, nevertheless, trafficking in chicks is a serious problem. Traders approach the local community and offer good money for a fully grown chick. Often these chicks die in captivity or during transport.
Irresponsible tourism can also be a threat. Shoebills can tolerate human presence to a certain extent, but often operators will move too close to offer their guests a good photo opportunity.
A more serious concern is local fishermen taking chicks from nests to show these to tourists. A guaranteed shoebill sighting will allow them to earn some extra cash, but these chicks often die in this process.
Because of these various threats, the population numbers are currently thought to be decreasing throughout the birds’ range. They are a long-lived species and can reach 25 years in the wild undisturbed. To provide protection, knowledge about their population size and structure, and the maintenance of suitable habitat are vital. Unfortunately, very little is known about this species, because research is challenging, with few rewards. The estimates for the total number of birds are highly uncertain, but it is currently thought that there are 5000 – 8000 shoebills, most of them in South Sudan.
Without immediate conservation measures, though, future generations might only know the shoebill as a strange-looking creature that could very well have gone extinct together with the dinosaurs.
Shoebill viewing can be an exciting experience, but we should be aware of the impacts on the birds. Well-trained guides know what to do and will keep an appropriate distance from the birds. Depending on the individual bird and the way it is approached, you might be able to get within 50m. A good guide will however often keep a greater distance based on his judgement of the bird’s behaviour.
If a guide offers to flush a shoebill from dense vegetation, politely decline the offer and wait for the shoebill to appear by itself. It might take a long time for a shoebill to show itself, but this reclusive bird has its reasons for this.
Similarly, visiting a nest can be done without causing major disturbance, but extreme care needs to be taken. Also, if local people offer you a sighting of a shoebill at their house, always refuse because this bird will be have been taken from its nest and will probably not fledge successfully.
Tourism can help the shoebills if part of the money generated is spent on the protection of this species. Viewing a shoebill in its natural environment is a remarkable experience which we should protect for future generations.
Where to watch showbills in the wild
Bangweulu Wetlands, Zambia
Nowadays probably the world’s best area to see shoebill, the Bangweulu Wetlands in northern Zambia is one of Africa’s largest wetlands, and headwaters of the mighty Congo River. Recent estimates suggest a population of several hundred individuals.
These days, in each of the known breeding sites, local fishermen are employed as “Shoebill Guards”. Their task is to prevent disturbance of the nest sites and chick theft for illegal trade, as well as facilitate shoebill tourism.
This has resulted in thorough knowledge of nesting sites and the whereabouts of shoebills through most of the year, making sightings pretty much guaranteed. The Bangweulu Wetlands host a wealth of other birds and wildlife, such as very large numbers of the endemic black lechwe antelope.
The nearby Kasanka National Park occasionally also hosts shoebills, as well as a seasonal colony of 10 million straw-coloured fruit bats, possibly the largest mammal concentration in the world. In general, Zambia is a very safe and friendly country to travel. In the past accessibility used to be mainly by air but the roads network has greatly improved and rapidly continues to do so. There is a fair choice of tourism facilities to stay, which can be booked through Kasanka Trust or the Bangweulu Wetlands Project and various international operators.
When to go: The wetlands are at their best from the end of April to July, shortly after the rains, when water levels peak and access becomes increasingly easy. Shoebills are normally present close to Shoebill Island Camp. Main nesting period is July to November and several nesting sites can normally be visited. Heavy rains in December to early April complicate accessibility and makes distribution of shoebills less predictable. During any time of the year, a shoebill search will typically take up the best of a day and might involve hours of boating or walking.
Uganda is the country where most people get to see shoebill. Although they can be found in any large wetland complex in the country, the two most reliable places are the papyrus swamps along the shores of Lake Victoria at Mabamba, and the edges of the Nile River in Murchison Falls National Park. Mabamba is only approximately a two-hour drive from Entebbe International Airport and is thus the most easily accessible place in the world to see the birds.
Your guide will take you to the Mabamba wetland boat launch point where, after paying a fee to the local shoebill guide, you will continue on a small wooden boat through channels in the papyrus to the places where these birds have been seen mostly recently. A typical trip will take about two hours and is superb birding, with likely species including African marsh harrier, lesser and African jacanas, malachite kingfisher, long-toed lapwing and even papyrus gonolek and Weyn’s weaver.
Sitatunga, a marsh-dwelling antelope with splayed hooves for walking on floating plant material, can be seen here sometimes. The small boats are uncovered and have rather hard wooden benches so sunscreen and a folded up raincoat to sit on are advised.
If you are heading northwards to Murchison Falls National Park, then your best bet for shoebill is a boat trip along the Nile River that heads westwards from Paraa towards the delta area where the Nile flows into Lake Albert. Scan the edges of the swamps for the distinctive grey shape.
This area can also be accessed by 4WD vehicle if you take the ferry crossing at Paraa and then head westwards towards the Lake Albert Delta area. Note though that sometimes security concerns advise against travelling north of the Nile, and the road conditions can be poor here after heavy rains. Swamps in Queen Elizabeth National Park, such as those along the shores of Lake Edward, also hold shoebill but access can be tricky.
When to go: Shoebills can be seen throughout the year in Uganda but most visitors go in the Dec-Feb and July-Sept dry seasons. Birding Africa (www.birdingafrica.com) organises shoebill boat trips as part of their Uganda birding tours.
About Kasanka Trust and the Bangweulu Wetlands Project
Kasanka Trust is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to the protection of Kasanka and Lavushi Manda National Parks, both part of the “Greater Bangweulu Ecosystem” in northern Zambia, as well conservation and sustainable development in the adjacent areas. It also runs Shoebill Island Camp in the Bangweulu Wetlands. Since 2008, the management of the Bangweulu Wetlands is with the Bangweulu Wetlands Management Board, a partnership between African Parks, the Zambia Wildlife Authority and the six local Chiefdoms. For more information go to www.kasanka.com and www.african-parks.org
Information supplied by:
Dr Ralf Mullers, Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, http://www.fitzpatrick.uct.ac.za/
Frank Willems, MSc, Chief Ecologist, Kasanka Trust, www.kasanka.comCallan Cohen, director, Birding Africa, www.birdingafrica.com
The most reliable place is Lake Birengero, north of Lake Ihema, and we recommend scanning the far edges of the lake from the tourist road that runs along the western edge of the lake. The area is apparently very difficult to reach by boat because the lake is too shallow.
Sudd Marshes, Southern Sudan
The vast Sudd Marshes in Southern Sudan are thought to host the largest population of shoebills in the world, possibly more than half the world population. Access to this area has since long been problematic due to the instable political situation. Political changes in recent years give hope that this will improve at some stage in the not too distant future.
When to go: it is not advised to travel here at the moment considering the current political and safety situation.
The only place to see shoebills in Rwanda is Akagera National Park on the eastern border of the country. The park has a small resident population of the birds, but access to their swamps is restricted to a few vantage points, and it is a matter of luck whether any are visible.