At AllThingsNature, we're committed to delivering accurate, trustworthy information. Our expert-authored content is rigorously fact-checked and sourced from credible authorities. Discover how we uphold the highest standards in providing you with reliable knowledge.

Learn more...

What is a Shoebill?

S. Ashraf
S. Ashraf

The shoebill, or Balaeniceps rex, is a large, stork-like wading bird. A mature shoebill is about 40-55 inches in length (101-140 cm), weighs about 8.8-15.5 pounds (4-7 kg) and has a wingspan of 91-125 inches (231-317 cm). These birds are very tall and stand about 45-60 inches (114-152 cm) in height. Males are somewhat bigger than females, with both sexes having a grayish-blue color. Their distinguishing characteristic is a very large, shoe-shaped greenish beak that is about 9 inches (23 cm) long and ends in a pointed, nail-like hook.

Geographically, the shoebill is found only in the tropical regions of east Africa. Throughout this area, its distribution is broken and further limited because its range usually corresponds with where there are both lungfish, its favorite food, and papyrus reeds. Sudan is the location where the majority of shoebills live. Smaller populations inhabit the wetland areas of northeastern Zambia, western Tanzania, northern Uganda, Rwanda and eastern Zaire. As long as water levels are neither too high nor too low and there is enough prey, the shoebill is sedentary and does not migrate.

Small populations of shoebills are found in Rwanda.
Small populations of shoebills are found in Rwanda.

For habitat, the shoebill likes areas where there are dense marshes that have abundant floating vegetation and flood with the seasons. These birds are also found in freshwater swamps with extensive undisturbed growths of reeds and papyrus grass. The shoebill inhabits some of the most remote and inaccessible habitat in the world.

Shoebills are carnivorous. Most of their diet comes from lungfish, tilapia, water snakes and catfish. In addition, they will eat turtles, frogs and lizards. The shoebill is a large enough bird that it also will prey on young crocodiles and small mammals. As a nocturnal species, the shoebill feeds mostly at night by standing completely still and then ambushing prey.

Shoebills typically live among reeds and papyrus grass.
Shoebills typically live among reeds and papyrus grass.

These are solitary birds that come together only to form monogamous pairs while breeding. The shoebill's breeding season is not completely understood, but scientists believe that it begins with the start of the dry season and lasts for six or seven months. Shoebills construct their nests on the ground, either on small islands or on masses of floating vegetation. Nests are woven into large structures about 3 feet (1 m) wide from grass or other vegetation.

Both sexes build the nest, incubate the eggs and care for the chicks. Shoebills lay one to three eggs, but only one usually survives. It takes about a month for the eggs to hatch. The chicks remain dependent upon their parents for approximately four months.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Shoebill and where can it be found?

The Shoebill, also known as Balaeniceps rex, is a large stork-like bird native to the freshwater swamps of central tropical Africa. It is especially prevalent in countries like Uganda, Rwanda, and Zambia. This solitary bird is known for its distinctive shoe-shaped bill, which it uses to catch fish and other aquatic animals.

How big do Shoebills get?

Shoebills are impressive birds, standing up to 5 feet tall with a wingspan that can reach 8 feet. They weigh between 12 to 15 pounds. Their large size and prehistoric appearance make them one of the most imposing bird species in their native habitat.

What does the Shoebill eat?

Shoebills are carnivorous and have a diet that primarily consists of fish, notably lungfish. They also consume other aquatic creatures such as frogs, snakes, and small crocodiles. Their hunting technique is patient and stealthy, standing still for long periods before striking with their powerful bill.

Is the Shoebill an endangered species?

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Shoebill is currently classified as Vulnerable. Habitat destruction, human disturbance, and the illegal pet trade contribute to their declining numbers. Conservation efforts are ongoing to protect these unique birds and their habitats.

How do Shoebills reproduce and raise their young?

Shoebills are solitary nesters, usually laying one to three eggs in a large nest built from vegetation. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs for about 30 days. After hatching, the strongest chick often receives the most food and may even push out its siblings. The young are dependent on their parents for several months.

What unique behaviors do Shoebills exhibit?

Shoebills are known for their statue-like stillness when hunting, which can last for hours. They also perform a unique clattering display with their bills, which is thought to be a form of communication. Despite their size, they are quite shy and elusive, often avoiding human contact and preferring to remain in dense marsh vegetation.

Discussion Comments


What is the population of the shoebill?

Post your comments
Forgot password?
    • Small populations of shoebills are found in Rwanda.
      By: lesniewski
      Small populations of shoebills are found in Rwanda.
    • Shoebills typically live among reeds and papyrus grass.
      By: emer
      Shoebills typically live among reeds and papyrus grass.