Shoebills live in the vast wetlands of the Nile watershed in eastern Africa. You really can’t mistake them for any other bird: They grow 4 to 5 feet tall, have bluish-gray plumage and an 8-plus-foot wingspan, and their bill, which takes up a majority of their face, looks like a huge Dutch wooden clog.
Of all the possible names, how on earth is it called the Shoebill? “Monsterface” would be better. Or “Death Pelican.” Or “Literally the Most Frightening Bird On Earth.”
Though I don’t think I’d go anywhere near one, humans don’t have to worry. Shoebills, which live in the swamps of eastern tropical Africa, are after smaller prey. But only slightly smaller. They eat big fish like lungfish, eels, and catfish, and also crazy stuff like Nile monitor lizards, snakes, and baby crocodiles. This bird eats crocodiles!
And they hunt like total bosses of the swamp. The Shoebill will stand there, motionless as a statue, and wait for some poor lungfish or baby crocodile to swim by. Then the bird will pounce forward, all five feet of it, with its massive bill wide open, engulfing its target along with water, mud, vegetation, and probably any other hapless fish minding their own business. Clamping down on its prey, the bird will start to swing its massive head back and forth, tipping out whatever stuff it doesn’t want to eat. When there’s nothing but lungfish or crocodile left, the Shoebill will give it a quick decapitation with the sharp edges of the bill (because of course it does) and swallow away.
Sound terrifying? Yeah, it is. But it’s also impossible not to be impressed by these giants. Shoebills have been a beloved species for a long time. They appear in the artwork of the ancient Egyptians. Arabs reportedly called the bird Abu-Markhub, or “father of a slipper” (just can’t get away from that shoe imagery).
So, anything cool about the bill other than that it’s gigantic, looks like footwear, and can decapitate crocodiles? Sure: It makes awesome machine-gun noises. Shoebills are silent most of the time but engage in “bill-clattering” around the nest or when greeting another bird. It’s loud and scary and the last sound that lots of poor monitor lizards ever hear.
By now we must have hit all the things that are scary about the Shoebill, you must be saying. Sorry, but no. (Why would I even be writing these words if not to lull you into a false sense of terror completion?) Are you ready for it? They crap on their legs. Yep. They crap on their own legs because it keeps them cool. As with other birds, the poop is mostly liquid, and heat from warm blood passing through the legs is used to evaporate the liquid waste, resulting in cooler blood circulating through the stork. The science is fascinating, but when you get right down to it, this already mean-looking bird with a huge, clattering death bill now also has poop legs.
Beastly and terrifying though they are, it would be a real shame to have a world without Shoebills. Young crocodiles would be everywhere! Eels! Monitor lizards! Our children and grandchildren would be overwhelmed. Lungfish, everywhere! Let’s work on appreciating these feathered monsters, and let them do their mud-eating, decapitating thing. But you might not want to look at them too closely. That death stare will haunt you in your dreams.
Over the past couple of centuries, naturalists have debated where shoebills should appear on the Tree of Life. Some taxonomists said that the shoebill’s syrinx, or vocal organ, resembled those of herons belonging to the family Pelecaniformes, which also includes ibises, pelicans, and boobies. Others countered that herons have specialized feathers than release a powdery down to help with preening, but shoebills didn’t have these feathers, so they must be storks belonging to the family Ciconiiformes. “There is, in fact, not the shadow of a doubt that it is either a heron or a stork; but the question is, which?” zoologist Frank Evers Beddard wrote in 1905. More recent studies on the shoebill’s eggshell structure and DNA have supported its place among the Pelecaniformes.