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The Tale Of A Very Special Shoebill

The shoebill (Balaeniceps rex) also known as the whalebill, whale-headed stork or shoe-billed stork, is a very large long-legged wading bird. It derives its name from its enormous shoe-shaped bill. It has a somewhat stork-like overall form and has previously been classified with the storks in the order Ciconiiformes based on this morphology. However, genetic evidence places it with pelicans and herons in the Pelecaniformes. The adult is mainly grey while the juveniles are more brown. It lives in tropical East Africa in large swamps from South Sudan to Zambia.

The tale of a very special shoebill

The shoebill may have been known to Ancient Egyptians[3] but was not classified until the 19th century, after skins and eventually live specimens were brought to Europe. John Gould very briefly described it in 1850 from the skin of a specimen collected on the upper White Nile by the English traveller Mansfield Parkyns. Gould provided a more detailed description in the following year. He placed the species in its own genus Balaeniceps and coined the binomial name Balaeniceps rex.[4][5][6] The genus name comes from the Latin words balaena "whale", and caput "head", abbreviated to -ceps in compound words.[7] Alternative common names are whalebill,[8] shoe-billed stork and whale-headed stork.[9]

So far, two fossilized relatives of the shoebill have been described: Goliathia from the early Oligocene of Egypt and Paludavis from the Early Miocene of the same country. It has been suggested that the enigmatic African fossil bird Eremopezus was a relative too, but the evidence for that is unconfirmed. All that is known of Eremopezus is that it was a very large, probably flightless bird with a flexible foot, allowing it to handle either vegetation or prey.

The shoebill is a tall bird, with a typical height range of 110 to 140 cm (43 to 55 in) and some specimens reaching as much as 152 cm (60 in). Length from tail to beak can range from 100 to 140 cm (39 to 55 in) and wingspan is 230 to 260 cm (7 ft 7 in to 8 ft 6 in). Weight has reportedly ranged from 4 to 7 kg (8.8 to 15.4 lb). A male will weigh on average around 5.6 kg (12 lb) and is larger than a typical female of 4.9 kg (11 lb).[15] The signature feature of the species is its huge, bulbous bill, which is straw-coloured with erratic greyish markings. The exposed culmen (or the measurement along the top of the upper mandible) is 18.8 to 24 cm (7.4 to 9.4 in), the third longest bill among extant birds after pelicans and large storks, and can outrival the pelicans in bill circumference, especially if the bill is considered as the hard, bony keratin portion.[15] As in the pelicans, the upper mandible is strongly keeled, ending in a sharp nail. The dark coloured legs are fairly long, with a tarsus length of 21.7 to 25.5 cm (8.5 to 10.0 in). The shoebill's feet are exceptionally large, with the middle toe reaching 16.8 to 18.5 cm (6.6 to 7.3 in) in length, likely assisting the species in its ability to stand on aquatic vegetation while hunting. The neck is relatively shorter and thicker than other long-legged wading birds such as herons and cranes. The wings are broad, with a wing chord length of 58.8 to 78 cm (23.1 to 30.7 in), and well-adapted to soaring.[15]

The plumage of adult birds is blue-grey with darker slaty-grey flight feathers. The breast presents some elongated feathers, which have dark shafts. The juvenile has a similar plumage colour, but is a darker grey with a brown tinge.[9] When they are first born, shoebills have a more modestly-sized bill, which is initially silvery-grey. The bill becomes more noticeably large when the chicks are 23 days old and becomes well developed by 43 days.[15]

The shoebill is distributed in freshwater swamps of central tropical Africa, from southern Sudan and South Sudan through parts of eastern Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, western Tanzania and northern Zambia. The species is most numerous in the West Nile sub-region and South Sudan (especially the Sudd, a main stronghold for the species); it is also significant in wetlands of Uganda and western Tanzania. More isolated records have been reported of shoebills in Kenya, the Central African Republic, northern Cameroon, south-western Ethiopia, Malawi. Vagrant strays to the Okavango Basin, Botswana and the upper Congo River have also been sighted. The distribution of this species seems to largely coincide with that of papyrus and lungfish. They are often found in areas of flood plain interspersed with undisturbed papyrus and reedbeds. When shoebill storks are in an area with deep water, a bed of floating vegetation is a requirement. They are also found where there is poorly oxygenated water. This causes the fish living in the water to surface for air more often, increasing the likelihood a shoebill stork will successfully capture it.[16] The shoebill is non-migratory with limited seasonal movements due to habitat changes, food availability and disturbance by humans.[15]

The shoebill is noted for its slow movements and tendency to stay still for long periods, resulting in descriptions of the species as "statue-like". They are quite sensitive to human disturbance and may abandon their nests if flushed by humans. However, while foraging, if dense vegetation stands between it and humans, this wader can be fairly tame. The shoebill is attracted to poorly oxygenated waters such as swamps, marshes and bogs where fish frequently surface to breathe. They also seem to exhibit migratory behaviors based upon differences in the surface water level. Immature shoebills abandon nesting sites which increased in the surface water level whereas adult shoebills abandon nesting sites which decreased in surface water level. It is suggested that both adult and immature shoebills prefer nesting sites with similar surface water levels.[18] Exceptionally for a bird this large, the shoebill often stands and perches on floating vegetation, making them appear somewhat like a giant jacana, although the similarly sized and occasionally sympatric Goliath heron (Ardea goliath) is also known to stand on aquatic vegetation. Shoebills, being solitary, forage at 20 m (66 ft) or more from one another even where relatively densely populated. This species stalks its prey patiently, in a slow and lurking fashion. While hunting, the shoebill strides very slowly and is frequently motionless. Unlike some other large waders, this species hunts entirely using vision and is not known to engage in tactile hunting. When prey is spotted, it launches a quick violent strike. However, depending on the size of the prey, handling time after the strike can exceed 10 minutes. Around 60% of strikes yield prey. Frequently water and vegetation is snatched up during the strike and is spilled out from the edges of the mandibles. The activity of hippopotamus may inadvertently benefit the shoebill, as submerged hippos occasionally force fish to the surface.[15]

The shoebill stork is increasingly vulnerable to hunting, overfishing, and destruction of their native wetlands. They are listed as a vulnerable species on the IUCN Red List and are on the radar of conservationists; Whitnall, who posts regularly on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube, is championing their cause every chance he gets and often goes viral with Sushi.

It's not possible to talk of Liuwa's wildlife without mentioning the story of one very special lion. Lady Liuwa starred in a National Geographic documentary as the only lion in the park, surviving alone for nine long years after poaching, human wildlife conflict and illegal trophy hunting decimated the prides. African Parks set about reintroducing lions, which have since had cubs, and prior to Lady Liuwa's natural death in August 2017 she headed a pride of eight. Those who were lucky enough to lay eyes on her knew they were witnessing a living legend: in her twilight years, she exuded leonine dignity and wisdom, teaching the newcomers all she knew and caring for their cubs.

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.

We had been on safari for about two weeks when my wife Amanda and I, along with our friends, boarded a small boat on the Victoria Nile in Uganda to specifically go looking for shoebills (Balaeniceps rex). While not rare birds, they can be difficult to spot as they occur in relatively low densities among thick stands of papyrus in meandering waterways and marshes. We were all delighted to find this individual out in the open and seemingly posing for our photos. It was even more special to watch it snatch up a catfish and then take its time softening it before swallowing it in a large gulp.

More on the pygmy slow loris:The Pygmy slow loris (Nycticebus pygmaeus), which is completely nocturnal, occurs to the east of the Mekong in South-East Asia. These small primates reach a maximum weight of 500 g and can live for up to 20 years. Pygmy slow loris spend their entire lives in trees, crawling along branches. They are unable to leap! Their food consists of insects, fruits and tree exudates. They have a very slow metabolism in comparison to other mammals of the same size. This enables them to let the hard-to-digest tree exudates ferment in their intestine for a long time, making more efficient use of the nutrients. Their diet also includes centipedes and caterpillars poisonous for other species; again the poison is neutralised by their special digestive process.(For more information, see also Pygmy slow loris in Wikipedia.)

Apparently there's a shoebill that's actually cool with humans, and supposedly you bow to it when meeting for the first time, and then he's cool with humans getting very, very close to him. Even pet him sometimes.


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