The Latin name of the Shoebill, Baleiniceps rex, means whale-headed king. Commonly known as the Shoebill or Whale-headed stork, both common names result from its most distinguishable feature – its bill. The impressive beak, said to resemble a hook-tipped Dutch clog, is 8 to12 inches long and 4 to 5 inches wide. The tan colored bill has many irregular-shaped, dark markings. The cutting edges are quite sharp and the tip is hooked – attributes for catching and killing prey.
In their native habitat (Africa), they can be seen standing motionless for long periods of time in shallow water that is often low in oxygen where their preferred prey (lungfish, talapia, birchirs and catfish) are found. They will also eat young crocodiles and monitor lizards, frogs, water snakes, rodents and even small birds.
These formidable birds stand 3.5 to 5 feet tall, weigh 12 pounds or more and have an average wingspan of 7.5 to 8 feet. Males tend to be slightly larger than females and have longer bills. The head is large, in proportion to the body. The plumage of adult birds is varying shades of gray, with darker slate flight feathers. The tail is rounded; legs are skinny and long; toes are extremely long; feet are unwebbed (traits of many wading birds).
It has been four years since we first wrote about Shoebills at the DWA. Sometimes referred to now as “Wilma” and “Dino” by their keeper, they are still living in their habitat at the top of the regular admission ramp, located on the upper level of the outdoor South African exhibit. These intriguing birds (with their uniquely designed mandible, large, penetrating yellow eyes and small crest of white tufts sticking out from the back of the head) look like mischievous, grinning, prehistoric oddities.