B. rex!


Another bit of text from the Ten Bird Meme of 2006. This time: well, you already know... also called the Shoe-billed stork, She-billed stork [not a typo], Whale-bill or Whale-headed stork, Balaeniceps rex is a long-legged big-billed waterbird of central Africa, and a specialist denizen of papyrus swamps. Though known to the ancient Egyptians, it wasn't described by science until John Gould named it in 1851. Before that time it was a cryptid, as an 1840 sighting of this as-of-then-unidentified bird had been published by Ferdinand Werne in 1849 (Shuker 1991).

Standing 1.4 m tall, the Shoebill can exceed 2.6 m in wingspan and is best known for its remarkable wide bill. This can be up to 25 cm long, is larger in males than females and, like that of pelicans, cormorants and gannets, lacks external nostril openings. The birds use the bill to grab at large aquatic prey like lungfishes, catfish, tilapia, snakes, turtles and frogs. They're reputed to eat antelope calves, but this is highly unlikely to say the least (Renson 1998), and apparently to eat carrion too. Little known is that the Shoebill is one of a handful of birds that occasionally practices quadrupedality: when Shoebills lunge forward while grabbing prey, they sometimes use their wings to help push themselves upright.

The affinities of the Shoebill have been controversial. Gould regarded it as a pelican and data from egg-shell microstructure and ear morphology was used by later authors to support this view. Unlike pelicans however, the long toes of the Shoebill are unwebbed and it is stork-like in some aspects of behaviour, practicing bill clattering and also dribbling water onto its eggs and young during the heat of the day. Based on stapedial morphology, Feduccia (1977) argued that the Shoebill really is a stork. It is also heron-like in its possession of powder-down and some other features, and some workers have argued that it is really an aberrant heron. As recently shown by Gerald Mayr (2003) however, the morphological evidence best supports a position for the Shoebill close to Steganopodes, the clade that includes frigate birds, pelicans, gannets, cormorants and anhingas (traditional Pelecaniformes is not monophyletic as tropicbirds are apparently closer to procellariiforms than they are to members of Steganopodes).

Refs - -

Feduccia, A. 1977. The whalebill is a stork. Nature 266, 719-720.

Mayr, G. 2003. The phylogenetic affinities of the Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex). Journal of Ornithology 144, 157-175.

Renson, G. 1998. The bill. BBC Wildlife 16 (10), 10-18.

Shuker, K. P. N. 1991. Extraordinary Animals Worldwide. Robert Hale, London.

More like this

These have always seemed the strangest of birds to me.

How apt are they are eating carrion?
It seems that their bill would be ill suited to the ripping and tearing of flesh, as opposed to the catching and swallowing of fish.

Whence "she-bill"?

Livezey & Zusi found Balaeniceps as sister of Pelicaniformes + tropicbirds.

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 03 Dec 2008 #permalink

I've always thought they were the "scariest looking" bird. They have the fiercest looking expression with the overhanging brow, huge bill, and evil smile.

As for other bird quadrupedality, do penguins count? The hind limbs seem to provide most of the force while tobogganing, but with at least some emperor penguins it looks like the wings touch the ground to balance/propel.

I'm flashing on those ... I guess they're ankle sheaths. What's up with them?

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 03 Dec 2008 #permalink

Yeah, that is one effing scary bird. Wherever it fits taxonomically.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 03 Dec 2008 #permalink

So no genetic work has been done on this strange & formidable birdie? This has cleared up so many interesting taxonomical gray areas.

By Arachnophile (not verified) on 03 Dec 2008 #permalink

A little piece of shoebill trivia...

The shoebill enjoyed a minor 'fifteen minutes of fame'-moment about eighty years ago, at least in continental Europe. This followed the 1924 publication of the book Abu Markub by the Swedish ornithologist Bengt Berg ('abu markub' is the shoebill's name in Arabic).

Although nearly forgotten today, Berg was one of the most famous wildlife photographers and nature documentary makers of the 20'ies and 30'ies. During an expedition to the Sudan he succeeded in photographing the shoebill in its native habitat, which was quite an impressive achievement at the time.

Like all of Berg's books, Abu Markub was written to a lay audience. It was well received and soon translated to many languages; I'm unaware of any English translation, however.

Any reference guidelines for info on Shoebill really really appreciated. Am doing an assignment on taxonomical classifciation, phylogeny, cladistics, phenetics and why is it classified in its own family.

I think he Shoebill is an awesome bird.

Thanks in advance.

By Lesley Stapley (UK) (not verified) on 04 Dec 2008 #permalink

She-billed stork [not a typo]

I do think that's a typo that someone then copied. I mean, what sense would it make?

why is it classified in its own family.

Because someone felt it should, and others felt they agreed. "Family" has no definition.

By David Marjanovi?, OM (not verified) on 04 Dec 2008 #permalink

Known to ancient Egyptians? Painted on murals?
They seem to have known a lot of animals!

Balaeniceps rex is a long-legged big-billed waterbird...

You forgot to add 'bow-legged' (see pic).

The big bill makes it interesting as potentially analogous in some ways to big-headed extinct giant birds like phorusrhacids and dromornithids. Droms seem to be mainly herbivorous (afaik, no predominantly carnivorous birds use gizzard stones: QED?) but a literal reading of the fossil record says they spent plenty of time at the water's edge (getting mired or becoming croc-food), and I guess they wouldn't pass up a low-hanging possum or - like the shoebill - meaty morsels like lungfish, catfish or snake. The drom bill has only slight hooking of the upper tip, and is relatively narrower (tall, arched culmen) rather than shoe-shaped, but comparable in proportional length and bulk.

By John Scanlon FCD (not verified) on 04 Dec 2008 #permalink


I agree that this bird looks somewhat menacing, but it still not as ugly as Leptoptilos crumeniferus (Marabou Stork)

More useless trivia: a Norwegian-Swedish chocolate brand used to have a marabou stork on its logo. The logo has since been changed but the chocolate is still known as Marabou. (Hmm. What is it with Scandinavians and their apparent obsession with large, stork-like birds?)

Another piece of shoebill trivia:
In Germany, the shoebill is known to many children because it is one of the main characters in the "Urmel" books, where lots of animals live on a remote island in the care of a professor who gives them a medicine that enables them to speak. The shoebill (Schuhschnabel in german) is called "Schusch".
So it has much more than 15 minutes of fame...

> a Norwegian-Swedish chocolate brand used to have
> a marabou stork on its logo. The logo has since been
> changed but the chocolate is still known as Marabou.

The chocolate is known under the name Freia in Norway, and under the name Marabou in the rest of the world. When Freia expanded to Sweden in the early 20th century, they found that their name could not be used there because of a conflicting trademark, and used the name of the bird in their logo instead. Why Freia used a marabou stork as their logo in the first place is another story. The animal usually associated with the goddess Freia is the cat, not the marabou. On the other hand, it's a scavenging bird, so it might fulfill the role of a psychopomp, and as such might be associated with a deity.

@John Scanlon FCD: The paper I linked to (in my name URL to avoid the spam filter) uses gastroliths to show a herbivorous diet, so that seems mostly accurate. It does cite a 1990 paper "Siegel-Causey D (1990) Gastroliths assist digestion in shags. Notornis 37:7072" which I don't have access to. This implies that at least one fish-eating bird uses gastroliths, but the linked paper suggests these might be used to add weight for diving.

@johannes: Well, the marabou stork is an African animal, so couldn't serve as a symbol to a Scandinavian goddess in any case, as the pre-Christian-era Norse would never have seen one.

> @johannes: Well, the marabou stork is an African animal, so > couldn't serve as a symbol to a Scandinavian goddess in any > case, as the pre-Christian-era Norse would never have seen > one.

That's true enough, but would a late 19th/early 20th century romantic artist care about such dry facts?

Probably not.

By William Miller (not verified) on 06 Dec 2008 #permalink

There is a story that Marabou chocolates got rid of the logo after the CEO had been on a safari in Africa and found out just how unappetizing a marabou stork is. Might well be true.
No, Bengt Berg's book "Abu Markub" was never translated into english, though into most other major european languages. Very few of his books were translated into english. There may have been personal/political reasons for this since he was a rabid germanophile.

By Tommy Tyrberg (not verified) on 06 Dec 2008 #permalink

I never thought that I would knew
So much about a bird with a bill like a shoe
And how about you?