Guess what everyone, it’s time for a new installment of Weird Biology! Yaaay! (CLAP NOW.) This week’s animal might look like a children’s edutainment mascot, but it’s an avian death machine with built-in machine-gun sound effects. Really. So hold onto your butts folks, because it’s time to meet-
(Gesundheit! Haha! Please do not bite me!)
The Shoebill is a stupidly huge modern dinosaur with a ginormous beak, which kind of looks like… uh, a shoe. (BLESS YOU) The Shoebill (BLESS… fine, fine I’ll stop) has several different names in other languages. The best one by far the Arabic Abu Markub, which can be translated as “Father of a Slipper”. Obviously this name is way, way better than anything I could ever come up with in a million years, and I should just quit my job and stop the article right here. I won’t, though. You still have to read like another six paragraphs of this. Suffer.
The Shoebill is a gigantic shambling heap of a bird, reaching up to five feet tall and fifteen pounds heavy. They’re simply too much bird to handle, especially when you consider that enormous clog of a beak. That odd bill may look like a cute dutch shoe, but the edges are razor-sharp and built to decapitate prey with a single heavy blow. The Shoebill is what you would get if you were to take a Velociraptor and tape an axe to its face, which kind of ruins the friendly muppet look they’ve got going on.
The Shoebill is found in tropical East African swamps and wetlands. They stalk around in the reeds and generally skulk around like most cranes and herons do, but with a couple of important differences. (Yes, those differences are all scary. Hang on.)
First, Shoebills are hunting for larger prey than your typical heron or crane. And while they do usually go after fish and eels up to 3 feet long (!!!), the Shoebill is a criminal of opportunity. They will eat anything, from baby crocodiles to smaller waterfowl to baby antelopes. BABY. ANTELOPES. So maybe don’t trust them around your children, is what I’m getting at here.
(HEY KIDS! Who wants to see if I can fit this ENTIRE BABY ANTELOPE in my mouth? TIMMY, YOU’RE NEXT.)
Second, Shoebills are very, very, veryveryvery patient. They stand next to the water and just. Don’t. Move. You’d think the Shoebill was trying to win a staring contest with the river, but I can assure you that it’s nothing that innocent. The Shoebill is waiting. Once an edible-looking fish/eel/nile monitor/baby antelope swims by, the Shoebill strikes. Five feet of hungry bird slams beak-first into its potential meal, swinging it around a few times, (To get the mud off. Mud is gross even to Shoebills) and snipping the head clean off with that terrible beak. Oh, and then the Shoebill swallows it whole. Headfirst. (It would be if the prey still had a head attached, anyway.)
Awful table manners aside, Shoebills actually do manage to scrounge up some compassion in their black black hearts when it comes to their children. *Paper rustles* Wait. Hang on, I read that wrong. Ahaha, whoops! They don’t, actually.
At the end of the rainy season, two Shoebills will court by making machine-gun sound effects with their beaks at each other. Once they have decided they can stand each other long enough to make some beautiful babies, (Shoebills are notoriously antisocial) the pair wander off to a distant corner of the swamp where they will build a huge nest and lay up to three eggs. Awww! However, only one of those eggs is going to make it to adulthood.
This is by design. The strongest chick will become a strong adult. “Wait… how do they know who’s the strongest?” You ask tremulously, an unnamable fear in your eyes. You are correct to be wary! The answer is siblicide. That’s right, the strongest chick will straight-up murder its weaker siblings by shoving them out of the nest to drown/be eaten by crocodiles. And the parents just kind of watch. Jeeze. I mean, I GUESS that’s as good a way as any to make sure at least one chick is strong enough to make it, but man. Don’t trust these guys around your children, that’s all I’m saying.
Despite their many nightmarish qualities, Shoebills remain an iconic bird and a valuable part of the ecosystem. (Why, without them we’d be knee deep in baby antelopes.) They have appeared in human art and culture from the Ancient Egyptians to The Audobon Society. They’re pretty neat.
Shoebills are also currently considered Vulnerable, with their habitat under threat from human encroachment. We really, really, really hope that this giant murderbird continues to thrive in the future, mostly so that if the day ever comes when someone points up into the air and cries “Look! A Shoebill!” we can all turn around in unison and scream,
1. Wuestenigel, Flickr
2. Emilie Chen, Flickr
3. Olaf Oliviero Riemer, Wikimedia Commons