Life as a shoebill chick is hard. Born with a beak heavy enough to topple them over, shoebill chicks are highly dependent for the first few weeks of wobbly-legged life, needing to be supplied with enough water and food to not just survive but also thrive. It’s a long journey for the football-sized balls of fluffy, downy feathers, who – if lucky – will one day stand at 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall as a grown adult. Unfortunately for shoebill chicks born with siblings, their chances of making this far aren’t so certain.
While very solitary animals for most of the year, breeding pairs of shoebills are monogamous. Once fertilized, the female will lay her eggs in a nest and both parents will tend to the turning, protection, and incubation of their prospective offspring until they hatch, with females on average laying two eggs. They live on marshes and swamps in East Africa, found in Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Zambia
What happens next will likely seal the fate of both chicks, as eggs which are laid earlier are more likely to bulk up ahead of their days-younger sibling. The small advantage has a big impact on the outcome of the chicks’ lives, as the stronger starts to attack the weaker while their parents are off fetching provisions.
Adult shoebills’ beaks are wide and about one-third of a meter (one foot) long, with a pointed hook that helps them to tackle large prey. Favorites include fish such as tilapia, lungfish, and catfish – and they’ve even been known to scoop up snakes, monitor lizards, and baby crocodiles. As it wades through the waterlogged landscape with slender legs that have a strong Mr Burns vibe about them, it’s easy to see why some people find these Muppet-turned-dinosaur (compounded by their scientific name Balaeniceps rex) birds a little scary.
Their hunting technique does little to dissuade this reputation, as they stand statuesque for hours before lunging on to passing prey in a hunting strategy known as “collapsing.” Add to that the Predator-like sound they sometimes make when trying to cool down with gular fluttering (speaking of which, have you ever seen a pelican yawn? Yikes) and you’ve got yourself quite the Disney Pixar villain.
Though admittedly a bit creepy, these unusual beaks make shoebills much better parents in one respect, returning to the nest with a bucket-load of water or a big dead fish to share. The good parenting arguably ends here, however, as shoebills have no shame in admitting they have a favorite. The smaller shabbier shoebill chick who has been routinely bullied by its bigger, stronger sibling is unlikely to see much of its parents’ spoils, who focus their energy and attention on raising only the strongest of their young. Spared of resources, this little chick will likely die, and it’s the norm that only one of the two eggs laid will survive to maturity at around three to four years of age.
Some tough love from a scary bird, maybe, but a necessary one as a means of preserving resources only for the shoebill chick that’s most likely to survive. Shoebills are currently listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, as the land they lay their eggs on is declining, and passing cattle squishing nests is a real issue. Shoebills are also hunted in some parts of the world for food, or because they’re considered to be a bad omen.