Shoebill: The human-sized African bird that eats baby crocodiles and kills its siblings

A shoebill (Balaeniceps rex) stork standing surrounded by plants and waiting.
Although sometimes incorrectly referred to as a stork, the shoebill is actually the only member of the Balaeniceps genus and the wider family Balaenicipitidae. (Image credit: Marek Mihulka via Shutterstock)

Name: Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex)

Where it lives: Marshes and swamps in East Africa 

What it eats: Fish and reptiles

Why it's awesome: This menacing and prehistoric-looking bird can grow up to 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall – and is equipped with a sharp-edged, 1-foot-long (0.3 meter) bill — the third-largest bird beak in the world. 

Its giant bill and long, skinny legs make it a formidable ambush predator —standing completely still before lunging forward to grab unsuspecting prey and swallow it whole.

A 2015 study published in the Journal of African Ornithology found that catfish were its most common prey, making up around 71% of its meals. However, the shoebill is also known to feast on eels, snakes and even baby crocodiles.  

Shoebills are mostly solitary, but breeding pairs are monogamous and lay up to three eggs in a clutch — though, due to rivalry between siblings, usually only one survives to adulthood. This is typically the larger first-born, which either out-competes any siblings for food, or kills them.  

Related: The bird that came back from the dead by evolving twice

The second or third chicks are essentially spares that serve as a backup if the first doesn't survive. 

This behavior was captured in a clip from the BBC David Attenborough series "Africa," showing the older chick biting at its younger sibling. When the mother returns to the nest, it offers no care to the smaller offspring. 

Although sometimes incorrectly referred to as a stork, the shoebill is actually the only member of the Balaeniceps genus and the wider family Balaenicipitidae, with its closest living relatives being pelicans. Its ancestors from the Pelecaniformes order emerged at the end of the Cretaceous period (145 million to 66 million years ago). 

The big-billed bird is  listed as vulnerable on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List, with just 5,000 to 8,000 birds left. 


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If you think the shoebill is a beast of a bird, you'll love some of the atrocious animals found in this book by author and illustrator Philip Bunting. It's a big, bright book packed with animal facts and hilarious illustrations, which is perfect for young kids. We particularly like the reimagined Latin names for animals — can you guess what the Dolphinii notsofriendlius or the Chucklus chucklus might be?

Megan Shersby
Freelance science writer

Megan Shersby is a naturalist, wildlife writer and content creator. After graduating from Aberystwyth University with a BSc (Hons) degree in Animal Science, she has worked in nature communications and the conservation sector for a variety of organisations and charities, including BBC Wildlife magazine, the National Trust, two of the Wildlife Trusts and the Field Studies Council. She has bylines in the Seasons anthologies published by the Wildlife Trusts, Into The Red published by the BTO, and has written for the BBC Countryfile magazine and website, and produced podcast episodes for its award-winning podcast, The Plodcast

  • danr2222
    Human-sized.
    Uh, but...
    ...oh well. That got some human-sized clicks I guess...
    Reply
  • Sebakhet
    danr2222 said:
    Human-sized.
    Uh, but...
    ...oh well. That got some human-sized clicks I guess...
    I'm only 4'10". Therefore, yes, these things are very much human-sized to myself and all the members of my family that are also very short.
    Reply
  • gf1422
    These things are abundant in Uganda!! They were more than willing to be hand fed scraps of all sorts at a rugby match in the south of Kampala!! Maybe the published scarce number of ~5,000 represent a related species? I will post a photo of them below:
    Reply
  • LouieLouie
    Yeah, lots of humans are 5' tall. Particularly, a lot of inhabitants of the African continent. They're not all Watusi---average heights in Africa, as well as Central America and the middle east are less than those historically in the US. Our average height has been decreasing noticably for 20 years as immigration from those countries and Asia increases. The height common in Americans came from our mostly Germanic, Slavic and other Northern European ancestors. Shorter immigrants are lowering the averages. I used to be exactly average height. Now I'm 1" above it. I stopped growing many years ago.
    Reply
  • Ahzurael
    These exist in Michigan and while 5ft doesn't seem big, when seeing them in real life, they are probably one of the more terrifying creatures to come face to face with in the wild. Not because they prey on humans or anything like that, they're fairly docile in that regard. But because of their appearance.
    Reply
  • Ahzurael
    gf1422 said:
    These things are abundant in Uganda!! They were more than willing to be hand fed scraps of all sorts at a rugby match in the south of Kampala!! Maybe the published scarce number of ~5,000 represent a related species? I will post a photo of them below:
    Aye, these exist in Michigan in the United States too. Just on my way to the upper peninsula I will see several perched alongside the roadways. They pretty common up here. Even had one swoop down at my dog as my first encounter seeing one. Thought I was loosing my mind for a while, lol.
    Reply
  • DAR
    Sometimes I hate nature because it's so BRUTAL. That poor little chick.
    Reply
  • undertakersnumber1fan
    Damn looks like a devil bird I saw that thing coming at me I think I'd run the other
    Reply
  • rachel24hl
    Ahzurael said:
    These exist in Michigan and while 5ft doesn't seem big, when seeing them in real life, they are probably one of the more terrifying creatures to come face to face with in the wild. Not because they prey on humans or anything like that, they're fairly docile in that regard. But because of their appearance.
    Hi, sorry, but are you saying shoebills are found in Michigan? We have great blue herons and sandhill cranes that are pretty big. I don't think we have any storks (I know it said shoebills aren't storks). Shoebills have always freaked me out a bit.
    Reply
  • rachel24hl
    gf1422 said:
    These things are abundant in Uganda!! They were more than willing to be hand fed scraps of all sorts at a rugby match in the south of Kampala!! Maybe the published scarce number of ~5,000 represent a related species? I will post a photo of them below:
    I'm kind of glad these aren't in the US. I dont think I want to come face to face with them. The sounds they make, their eyes, bills, etc. I find a bit creepy. I dont think it helps that they can be as tall as me 😆
    Reply