Archive for the Shoebill Category

When Shoebills Attack! Part II

Posted in African Birds, San Diego Wild Animal Park, Shoebill on November 2, 2009 by Charles Alexander


Good morning, Mr. Shoebill! Let’s try this again…


How about a fish?


Guess not. A nice juicy rat?


It looks like a Ugandan standoff for the second time today. At least we got a look at the shoebill’s nearly eight foot wingspan. Let’s wade around to the other side of the island to see if Mrs. Shoebill is hungry…

swan geese_edited-2The swan geese-endangered and native to parts of China, Mongolia, and Russia–certainly seem fascinated by the proceedings. Rubberneckers!

IMG_2060_edited-3Looking lovely as ever, Mrs. Shoebill. Like a fish?

IMG_2062_edited-4Hello? Anyone home?

IMG_2066_edited-2Oh, I see– you’re trying to get a better look. When a shoebill draws its head down against its breast like that, it is enhancing the effect of its binocular vision.


Let’s try one of your favorites: a delicious white rat…


Good! At least someone has an appetite this morning. See how she draws the translucent nictitating membrane across her eye for protection? The nictitating membrane is sometimes called the third eyelid and moves horizontally across the eyeball via reflex. Shoebills shield their eyes this way when swallowing prey or even preening. Not a bad idea when your vision is paramount to your survival in the wild.

IMG_2044_edited-3Look out, Mr. Shoebill has spotted us and he doesn’t approve. He expresses his displeasure by bowing, then shaking his huge head from side to side: ” No, no, no, no, no…”

IMG_2065_edited-3Better hurry up and swallow that last rat. The shoebill is capable of swallowing its prey–lungfish, catfish, snakes, frogs, lizards, small mammals, even birds and baby crocodiles–whole. But it usually decapitates its catch first with the sharp edges of its bill.

IMG_1997 resized_edited-1Look out, he’s on the move again…

IMG_2356Shoebills also display by clattering their bills loudly within the span of a few seconds, a distinctive series of rapid, hollow pops–exactly like the sound of someone knocking two wooden shoes together very fast. We should definitely leave the island now.


Just in the nick of time…

IMG_2107And you thought dinosaurs were extinct.


When Shoebills Attack! Part I.

Posted in African Birds, San Diego Wild Animal Park, Shoebill on November 1, 2009 by Charles Alexander

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…