When Shoebills Attack! Part I.

AThe scene: idyllic Shoebill Island, San Diego Wild Animal Park

BThe suspect: male Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex)– A strange, stork-like bird from the papyrus swamps of the Sudanese Sudd, the Ugandan White Nile, and other impenetrable, crocodile-friendly wetlands of tropical East Africa. Eyes: icy blue. Height: 115-150 cm (45-64 in). Eats lungfish, catfish, baby crocodiles, frogs, snakes, small mammals, even birds. Also called the whalehead stork. But in truth, he is no stork. There is, putting it mildly, no other bird on earth quite like him.

IMG_2380_edited-1The situation: don’t mess with his girlfriend.


She’s stationed on the opposite side of the island. She may be the quiet type, but let’s face it: she’s a tall leggy looker. Her mate has been coming into breeding condition lately and doesn’t want anyone near her.

CIt’s a beautiful, sunny morning in San Diego: 76 degrees, nice breeze, zero humidity (surprised?). Great day to just stand around doing shoebill stuff: preen…

c1stare acutely into space…

D…preen some more. Amazing how that extraordinary, enormous hooked bill can retouch the tiniest feather with surprising delicacy and dexterity, then be wielded like a rolling pin to distribute protective powder from the shoebill’s powder-down feathers (a feature allying the species with herons), oil from the oil gland, and smooth out the smallest imperfection in the plumage.

EMr. Shoebill’s got moves you’ve never seen…

FBut wait, what’s that noise? A jingling sound, footsteps. The girl with the bucket is approaching. She tried earlier this morning to invade shoebill territory, pretending to offer delicious rats, but in a fury of flashing wings and clattering bill, was driven away! She won’t be making that foolish move again anytime soon.

IMG_2308_edited-3Hold on: she’s crossing the railing, wading out into the water…

IMG_2338_edited-3coming closer…IMG_1951

This doesn’t look good! The shoebill normally gives the impression of stillness and solemnity, but it can move quite quickly when it wants to (at least by shoebill standards). The bird can stand motionless for hours, waiting for its favorite lungfish to surface for a gulp of air. At that point the bird throws its entire weight behind one lightning fast lunge in order to secure its prey and make the kill. Notice that his long, long toes aren’t webbed.


That huge bill has razor sharp edges and the hook at the end of it is a formidable tool for holding on to slippery lungfish. He can do serious damage to an opponent, but fortunately his keeper knows just how to handle him. He’s normally not nearly so aggressive, but for the past week, his hormone levels have soared. Nothing like an extra dose of testosterone to make a guy territorial. Now that he’s made his point, perhaps he’ll settle down and accept a few morsels of breakfast. At least it’s worth a try…


6 Responses to “When Shoebills Attack! Part I.”

  1. Love the story Charles. Such a sense of humor you have and you did it perfectly with this bird. He is a handsome “devil” and she is a beauty. Thanks for the giggle.

  2. Pamela P. Says:

    Amazing! Absolutely love it. You definitely have a way with telling a story and this one fits perfectly. Very beautiful bird. Will be anxiously awaiting the next “chapter”. ;^)

  3. Such a beautiful love story…..I am afraid to say I am in love with mr Shoebill as well………..look out Mrs Shoebill , you have fierce competition….

    Thank you ever so much for sharing


  4. Beautiful photos of a magnificent bird. Wonderfully told tale that I can’t wait to hear more of. A fantastic job of capturing the personality and essance of this particular shoebill. I almost feel as if you took me there to watch with you. Priceless!

  5. Love the Shoebill Saga – entertaining story and great photos. I know what you have on your plate for the next year, but you really should try to work in a Shoebill painting!

  6. julian sarmiento Says:

    this pictures are excellent ,great work i will love to take a trip later on in life to Africa to study animals , cause like this is as closest you get from seeing a dinosaur this creature is out of this world when i first saw it i couldnt beleive my eyes, i dont understand how they don”t have a show in NatGeo wild about shoebills, lets make a documentary about this animal please.

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