The shoebill is a large water bird, unmistakably recognizable by its unique “shoe-shaped” beak, which gives it an almost prehistoric appearance, reminiscent of the origin of birds from dinosaurs. The species is found in nine countries in Africa and has a large range, but is found in small local populations concentrated around swamps and wetlands.
Origin of the species and description
Kitoglav was known to the ancient Egyptians and Arabs, but was not classified until XIX — century, when living specimens were brought to Europe. John Gould described the species in 1850, calling it Balaeniceps rex. The genus name comes from the Latin words balaena “whale” and caput “head”, abbreviated as -ceps in compound words. Arabs call this bird abu markub, which means “shoe”.
Traditionally associated with storks (Ciconiiformes), it was retained in the Sibley-Ahlquist taxonomy, which combined a huge number of unrelated taxa into «Ciconiiformes». More recently, shoebill was thought to be closer to pelicans (based on anatomical comparisons) or to herons (based on biochemical data).
Fun fact: Microscopic analysis of eggshell structure in 1995, allowed Konstantin Mikhailov to discover that the shell of the shoebill resembled the structure of the shell of pelicans.
The coating itself consisted of a thick microglobulin material over crystalline shells. Recent DNA testing confirms their Pelecaniformes.
Two fossil relatives of the shoebill have been described so far:
- Early Oligocene Goliathia from Egypt;
- Paludavis from the early Miocene.
It has been suggested that the mysterious African fossil bird Eremopezus was also related to the shoebill, but evidence for this has not been confirmed. All that is known about Eremopez is that it was a very large, possibly flightless bird with flexible legs that allowed it to handle vegetation and prey.
Appearance and features
Shoebills — the only member of the genus Balaeniceps and the only living member of the family Balaenicipitidae. They are tall, somewhat intimidating-looking birds, ranging in height from 110 to 140 cm, and some specimens reach as much as 152 cm. The length from tail to beak can range from 100 to 1401 cm, wingspan from 230 to 260 cm. Males have more elongated beaks . Weight is reported to vary between 4 and 7 kg. The male will weigh on average somewhere around 5.6 kg or more, and the average female 4.9 kg.
The plumage is grayish gray with a dark gray head. The primary colors have black tips, while the secondary colors have a greenish tinge. The underside of the body is a lighter shade of grey. At the back of the head is a small tuft of feathers that can be raised into a crest. A newly hatched shoebill chick is covered in a silvery grayish silky down, and is a slightly darker shade of gray than the adults.
Interesting fact: According to ornithologists, this species is one of the five most attractive birds in Africa. There are also Egyptian images of the shoebill.
The protruding beak is the bird's most noticeable feature and resembles a wooden boot, straw in color with erratic greyish markings. This is a huge design, ending with a sharp curved hook. Mandibles (mandibles) have sharp edges that help to capture and eat prey. The neck is smaller and thicker than other long-legged wading birds such as cranes and herons. The eyes are large and yellowish or grayish white in color. The legs are long and blackish. The fingers are very long and completely separated without webbing between them.
Where does the shoebill live?
The species is endemic to Africa and inhabits the east-central part of the continent.
The main groups of birds are:
- in southern Sudan ( mainly in the White Nile);
- in the wetlands of northern Uganda;
- in western Tanzania;
- in parts of eastern Congo;
- in northeastern Zambia in the Bangweulu swamp;
- small populations are found in the eastern parts of Zaire and Rwanda.
This species is most abundant in the West Nile subregion and adjacent areas of southern Sudan. Isolated cases of shoebill settlement have been reported in Kenya, northern Cameroon, southwestern Ethiopia, and Malawi. Stray individuals have been seen in the Okavango, Botswana and upper Congo basins. The Shoebill is a non-migratory bird with limited seasonal movements due to habitat changes, food availability and human disturbance.
Kitoglavs chose freshwater swamps and vast, dense swamps. They are often found in floodplain areas interspersed with intact papyrus and reeds. When the shoebill stork is in an area with deep water, it needs a lot of floating vegetation. They also prefer bodies of water with poorly oxygenated water. This causes the fish living there to surface more often, increasing the chance of catching them.
Now you know where the shoebill bird lives. Let's see what she eats.
What does the shoebill eat?
Shovelheads spend most of their time looking for food in the aquatic environment. The bulk of their carnivorous diet consists of wetland vertebrates.
Suggested preferred prey species include:
- Marbled protopter (P. aethiopicus);
- Senegalese polyfin (P. senegalus);
- various species of tilapia;
- catfish (Silurus).
Other prey eaten by this species include:
- water snakes;
- Nile monitor lizards (V. niloticus);
- small crocodiles;
- small turtles;
- small waterfowl.
Given a huge beak with sharp edges and a wide entrance hole, the shoebill can hunt larger prey than other wading birds. The fish eaten by this species are usually 15 to 50 cm long and weigh about 500 g. The snakes that are hunted are usually 50 to 60 cm long. catfish and water snakes.
The main tactics used by shoebills are “to stand and wait” and “wander slowly”. When a prey item is located, the bird's head and neck quickly sink into the water, causing the bird to lose balance and fall. After that, the shoebill should regain its balance and start again from a standing position.
Along with prey, particles of vegetation fall into the beak. To get rid of the green mass, shoebills shake their heads from side to side, holding the prey. The prey is usually decapitated before swallowing. Also, a large beak is often used to pull out dirt at the bottom of the pond in order to extract fish hiding in holes.
Peculiarities of character and lifestyle
Shoe heads never occur in groups while feeding. Only when there is a strong shortage of food, these birds will feed next to each other. Often the male and female of a breeding pair forage on opposite sides of their territory. Birds do not migrate as long as there are good feeding conditions. However, in some areas of their range, they will make seasonal movements between nesting and feeding areas.
Interesting fact: Kitoglavy are not afraid of people. Researchers studying these birds have been able to get closer than 2m to their nest. The birds did not threaten people, but looked directly at them.
Shoeheads soar in thermals (a mass of rising air), and are often seen hovering over their territory during the day. In flight, the bird's neck retracts. Birds are usually silent, but often rumble with their beaks. Adults are so welcoming each other in the nest, and the chicks just rumble their beaks while playing. Adults will also make a whining or “mooing” noise, and chicks will make a hiccup-like sound, especially when begging for food.
The main senses that shoebills use when hunting are sight and hearing. To facilitate binocular vision, birds hold their heads and beaks vertically down towards their chest. Kitoglav holds its wings evenly during takeoff, and, like pelicans, flies with its neck retracted. Its frequency of strokes is approximately 150 times per minute. This is one of the slowest speeds of any bird, with the exception of the larger stork species. The flight model consists of alternating cycles of flapping and sliding lasting about seven seconds. The birds live almost 36 years in the wild.
Social Structure and Reproduction
Kitoglavy — have an area of approximately 3 km². During the breeding season, these birds are very territorial and defend the nest from any predators or competitors. Breeding times vary by location, but usually coincide with the start of the dry season. The reproductive cycle lasts from 6 to 7 months. A plot with a diameter of 3 meters is trampled down and cleared for the nest.
The nest is located on a small island or on a mass of floating vegetation. Nested material such as grass is woven on the ground to form a large structure about 1 meter in diameter. One to three, usually two, layered whitish eggs are laid, but only one chick remains by the end of the breeding cycle. The incubation period is 30 days. Shoeheads feed chicks with regurgitated food at least 1-3 times a day, as they grow up 5-6 times.
Interesting fact: The development of shoebills is a slow process compared to other birds. Feathers develop up to about 60 days, and the chicks leave the nest only on the 95th day. But the chicks will be able to fly for about 105-112 days. Parents continue to feed their young for about a month after fledging.
Kitoglavy — monogamous birds. Both parents are involved in all aspects of nest building, incubation and rearing of the chicks. In order to keep the eggs cool, the adults take a beak full of water and pour it over the nest. In addition, they lay pieces of wet grass around the eggs and turn the eggs over with their paws or beak.
Natural enemies of shoebills
There are several predators of adult shoebills. These are mainly large birds of prey (hawk, falcon, kite) attacking during slow flight. However, the most dangerous enemies are crocodiles, which inhabit African swamps in large numbers. Chicks and eggs can be taken by many predators, but this happens very rarely, because these birds aggressively protect their young and build nests in places inaccessible to those who want to feast on them.
The most dangerous enemies of the shoebill are people who catch birds and sell them for food. In addition, indigenous people receive large sums of money from the sale of these birds to zoos. Kitoglav is threatened by hunters, human destruction of their habitat, and cultural taboos that lead to them being systematically hunted and captured by members of local tribes.
Interesting fact: In many African cultures, shoebills are considered taboo and bring bad luck. Some of the local tribes require their members to kill these birds in order to cleanse their land of bad omens. This led to the extinction of the species in parts of Africa.
Purchasing by zoos, which was designed for the survival of this species, has led to a significant decrease in populations. Many birds taken from their natural habitat and placed in zoos refuse to mate. This is because shoebills are very secretive and solitary animals, and the stress of transit, unfamiliar surroundings and the presence of people in zoos is known to kill these birds.
Population and species status
Many estimates of the whalehead populations have been made, but the most accurate are 11,000-15,000 birds across the range. Since the populations are scattered over large areas and most of them are inaccessible to humans for most of the year, it is difficult to get a reliable number.
Threats include habitat destruction and degradation, hunting and trapping for the bird trade. Suitable habitat is recycled for raising and grazing. And as you know, cattle trample nests. In Uganda, oil exploration may affect the populations of this species by altering its habitat and oiling the environment. Pollution can also be significant where agrochemical and tanneries wastes run off or are dumped into Lake Victoria.
The species is used for zoo trade, which is a problem, especially in Tanzania where trade in the species is still legal. Shoe heads sell for $10,000-$20,000, making them the most expensive birds in the zoo. Experts from the Bangweulu Wetlands, Zambia, estimate that the eggs and chicks are collected by the locals for consumption and sale.
Fun fact: Breeding success can be as low as 10% per year mainly due to the human factor. During the breeding season 2011-2013. Only 10 out of 25 chicks were successfully fledged: four chicks died in a fire, one was killed, and 10 were taken by humans.
In Zambia, fire and drought threaten habitats. There is some evidence for capture and persecution. The conflict in Rwanda and the Congo has led to the violation of protected areas, and the proliferation of firearms has made hunting much easier. In Malagarassi, large areas of miombo woodland adjacent to the swamps are being cleared for tobacco and agriculture, and the population, including fishermen, farmers and semi-nomadic pastoralists, has increased very rapidly in recent decades. In four years, only 7 out of 13 nests were successful.
Unfortunately, this species is on the verge of extinction and is fighting for its survival. The Shoebill is assessed by the IUCN as critically endangered. Birds are also listed on Appendix II of CITES and are legally protected in Sudan, the Central African Republic, Uganda, Rwanda, Zaire and Zambia by the African Convention on Nature and Natural Resources. Local folklore also protects shoebills, and locals are taught to respect and even fear these birds.
This rare and localized species is listed as vulnerable because it is estimated to have one small population over a wide range. The Bangweulu Wetland Management Council is implementing a plan to conserve the species. Steps are being taken in South Sudan to better understand the species and improve the status of protected areas.
Kitoglav makes money through tourism. Many travelers go to Africa on river excursions to see wildlife. Several key locations have been designated as shoebill sites in South Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia. In the Bangweulu Wetlands, local fishermen are hired as guards to protect the nests, which raises local awareness and increases breeding success.