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Episode 206: Shocked by Shoebills

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The Shoebill, or also known as Shoebill Stork, Death Pelican, Whalehead, and others, is one unique bird.  What draws most to this bird is its enormous beak. It quite simply earned its name because it’s beak looks like an old Dutch wooden shoe. Its massive. Native to central Africa, the Shoebill has carved out its ecological niche as a predator and plays a key role in maintaining freshwater ecosystems. It is a large bird that preys on anything from tilapia, lungfish to lizards and small crocodiles. The Shoebill is a prized sighting by many bird watchers and now we know why. In this week’s podcast we cover everything Shoebill. From their natural history, ecological impacts, their physiology, reproduction and behavior. This is an incredible bird that will bring a smile to your face.


Shoebill History

Birds date back nearly 160 million years. The Shoebill is a member of the order Pelecaniformes. While pelicans once were part of this order, recent DNA evidence has them splitting off. The Shoebill is one of four families, to also include the hamerkop, ibises, spoonbills, herons, egrets and bitterns. This order did not emerge until around 65 million years ago. Not much more is known specifically about Shoebills and their evolution currently.

The Shoebill scientific name is Balaeniceps Rex. These birds are native to Central Africa and are non-migratory birds.


Shoebill Facts

Shoebills are large birds standing nearly 5 feet (1.5 m) tall. Their wingspans can stretch nearly 8.5 feet (2.5 m) and they can weigh as much as 15 lbs. (7 kg). Their large bills can be almost 10 inches (24 cm) long. Because they are not migratory they can afford to be this large and on average beat their wings 150 times per minute. This is rather slow compared to other birds. Other facts include:

    • Live into their 30s (oldest known is 36 years)
    • Bills have a sharp point at end used to catch prey
    • To cool off they will defecate on their legs. As the warm blood runs through their legs it helps evaporate the liquid waste, acting like sweat does in mammals.
    • They prefer fish such as lungfish, tilapia, and catfish. They also will prey on lizards, small crocs, other birds and more.
    • Good indicator species of freshwater ecosystems. When present they are indicative of a healthy ecosystem.


The Shoebill is listed as vulnerable by the IUCN. There may be as many as 15,000 left in the world. Habitat loss and climate change are major drivers of their decline.


February 10, 2021
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