Fun Facts About The Shoebill That You Didn’t Know. Habitat, Food & Social Habitat

Fun facts about the shoebill: With its unnaturally big ‘shoe-like’ bill, the shoebill is a marvel to see. The shoebill looks mean and a little prehistoric compared to other species in the same family. If you have only seen pictures of it, it might look a little unreal but there is a healthy number of shoebills in Uganda.

The scientific name for the shoebill stork is Balaenicepe rex. It is sometimes referred to as a whale head because of its gigantic shoe-shaped beak.

1. Natural Habitat

The shoebill tends to inhabit freshwater swamps, wetlands and marshlands. The Shoebill is endemic to the East and Central African, countries of Uganda, DRC, Kenya, Botswana, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Zambia and South Sudan. Here is a Habitat Map showing all the countries which are known to have shoebills.

In Uganda, you can see these rare birds in the Mabamba swamp, Lake Mburo National Park, Zziwa Rhino Sanctuary, and Murchison Falls National Park.

2. Physical Appearance

The shoebill is a tall bird. It can weigh as tall as 4.5 feet and weigh up to 7 kilograms. It is grey in colour, but the most outstanding feature is the shoe-shaped bill.

The beak of the shoebill is curved at the tip and has very sharp edges which the bird uses to cut through its food. The beak is almost 10 inches long, deadly and used for both feeding and protecting itself.

The legs are long, slender and black, with large feet.

The shoebill wings can spread up to 2.5 meters (8 feet) and can flap about 150 times per minute.  This means that when a shoebill spreads its wings, it has a bigger wingspan than Shaquille O’Neal (Wingspan of 7.5 feet). That is how massive a shoebill is.

Although it is called a shoebill stork, it is a member of the taxonomic order of Pelecaniformes. These are a family of medium to large-sized water birds. This means they are more closely related to the pelicans, anhingas and gannets than to the storks.

3. Food & Diet

The Shoebill is a carnivorous bird that mainly feeds on fish and aquatic features. Shoebills prefer to feed on lungfish but supplement this other assortment like water snakes, frogs, turtles, and occasionally baby crocodiles when the young ones’ parents are not around.

They lunge at the baby crocodile swiftly when an opportunity presents itself. With the sharp and hard beak, once the prey is captured, it is very rare to escape their fate.

It is known for being a fierce hunter and a patient predator.  The shoebill will wait out its prey especially in the shallow ends of wetlands or any floating vegetation to stake out its meal. At the right moment, it strikes promptly and deadly possibly killing its prey in one swift move.

The beak is a fundamental instrument in eating. It is used to catch and kill the prey, as well as to chop off the heads of the prey for ease while swallowing.

4. Social Habits

Socially, the shoebill is a solitary and quiet animal. Partners only come together for mating, building the nesting area and incubating the eggs. The shoebill stork can live for more than 35 years in the wild. A shoebill stork becomes sexually active at 3 to 4 years of age.

The shoebill mating season is closer to the dry period than the wet period when it is safer for the nest and eggs. The female lays between 1 to 3 eggs and incubates them for about 30 days until they hatch.

The young one is not able to stand and move on its own until two months later, so it solely depends on the mother’s food provision until three months later when they can do this on their own with the supervision of the parents. When hungry the chicks make hiccup-like sounds to notify the mother that they need food.

The chicks are known for being insanely competitive. It is the real survival of the fittest in the shoebill’s nest. They fight each other off until the weakest chick is pushed out. The bigger chicks often pick on the smaller ones especially when the mother is away, and this often drives the defeated bird to live outside of the family. Sibling rivalry is very common among these young shoebills.

It is a quiet animal and can go for days without making any noise or sounds leaving for the flapping of its wings. However, when it does make a sound it is indeed ground shaking.  This is most evidenced in the mating season when the male adult picks out its mate. It will make a resounding clapping-like sound attracting the said female while simultaneously scaring away any competitors and other small animals. The male and female bow to each other as a display of their courtship.

The shoebill can fly but not for a long time considering it can only flap its wings 150 times a minute (Slowest rate of any bird). It can only fly up to 500 metres.

A shoebill spends most of its time standing, hidden and watching out for its prey. It is said that a shoebill can stand motionless for hours while holding their bills close to their necks. Such a meditative and yet cunning hunter.

Shoebill storks also practice urohydrosis. This is the process of defecating on themselves to control their body temperature and cool off when it gets a little hot.

5. Conservation Status

According to the IUCN Redlist,  shoebill storks are considered a vulnerable species. The available data indicate that the population of the shoebill is decreasing.

The population of shoebills is estimated to be around 5000 in the entire world. Although, it is hard to have the exact number of living shoebills because of their mysterious and elusive nature. They set up nests in hard-to-reach areas for humans.

The biggest threat to this interesting bird is humans. The constant encroachment on wetlands for human economic activity is a continuous threat to these birds.

There are also certain myths and superstitions about the shoebill that lead to its hunting. A common myth is that shoebills on the shores of the river/lake bring bad luck to the fishermen for the day.

In Uganda, there are estimated to be less than 1,000 shoebill birds left.


The shoebill is a very interesting bird and when you see it wait for its prey and then snatch it from the water, you will be enthralled even more.

As you can see from the conservation status above, the decreasing population is not a good thing. Due to the limited habitat range, ensuring their survival is very important.

One way of doing that is through sustainable tourism. This is where the proceeds from tourism go towards conservation and involving the local community in active conservation. For everyone who goes to see the shoebill, the experience is great and the proceeds go towards a worthy cause.

Here are some sample itineraries that include places with the shoebill – where you will see it.

These sample safari packages include various other attractions and activities besides tracking down the old-looking shoebill. Look at the itineraries for your inspiration and if one fits your fancy, you talk to us about it.

Remember, you can also ask for a fully personalized safari package that we can make based on your interests, schedule and budget. It is free too, so don’t be afraid of asking.

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