Hmm... usually I explain why I chose the particular animal as the Awesome Animal. This time, the reason is pretty silly. I saw a photo of a Shoebill, and I thought, look at that crazy bill! That's it. Sometimes my reasons are not particularly intellectual.
What the heck is a Shoebill?
This bird is sometimes called the shoe-billed stork, or the whalehead. Figuring out exactly what the shoebill is has been an ongoing challenge. For years it used to be classified as one of the storks. However, anatomical studies (looking at the structure) suggest it is more closely related to pelicans. But then, molecular studies have convinced many scientists that it is actually more closely related to herons. I guess the jury is still out on that. Because of all this confusion, the bird has been placed in its own special family (called Balaenicipitidae... just try to pronounce that one).
Apparently, the shoebill's closest living relative is another odd-looking bird called the hamerkop. Anyway, they're a big, impressive-looking bird. Shoebills are taller than a mailbox, sometimes standing five feet (152 cm) tall, with an 8-foot wingspan!
Shoebills live in central and eastern Africa, and they eat an impressive variety of prey.
Amazing Facts about Shoebills
First, we need to talk about that bill. The bill is sturdy, heavy, and perfectly adapted for the bird's methods of catching prey. Here's why it's so heavy and sturdy: The shoebill hunts by standing still or walking slowly and carefully, watching for anything that moves that it can swallow (and shoebills can swallow a lot!). When it spots an animal, the bird throws itself forward with every ounce of strength it has, and its bill crashes into the water at full speed.
Here is a brief video that shows a shoebill hunting.
Often, when a shoebill grabs a prey animal like this, it also gets a mouthful of water plants and mud. No problem, though. The bird is skilled at shifting its jaws back and forth to discard the salad and keep the meat.
I mentioned above that shoebills eat an impressive list of prey. They are particularly fond of lungfish (see above photo), but they will eat pretty much any creature they can swallow whole. This includes not only surprisingly large lungfish, but also eels, catfish, and frogs. As if that weren't impressive enough, they do not hesitate to eat monitor lizards, snakes, and even young crocodiles. Yep, this is a bird that eats crocodiles.
So, it grabs a mouthful of stuff, shakes out everything else except for the prey animal, then it often maneuvers the animal around until it can decapitate it with its sharp-edged bill. Easier to swallow that way, I suppose. And swallow it does—whole. All at once. Down the hatch. Gulp.
But wait! Even though the bird has eaten its prey, it isn't quite finished with it yet. Sorry, but this part is a little disgusting. Shoebills live in hot places, and to help cool themselves down, they poop on their legs. That's right. How does it work? Well, bird poop is mostly liquid, and when the poop evaporates, it cools the blood circulating through the shoebill's legs, and that cooled blood cools the rest of the bird's body. Isn't that cool?
Um, is it me, or does the shoebill look a little like the long-lost dodo bird?
Hey, why do they call them shoebills? What kind of shoe looks like that? A Dutch wooden clog, of course, and that's how they got their name.
Remember when I said shoebills often hunt by standing still and waiting? I wasn't kidding. You wouldn't want to get into a staring contest with one of these birds because they are capable of standing in one place and staring at the water for hours at a time. They could teach us all a thing or two about the virtues of patience.
Shoebills have large, gold-colored eyes, and when they look directly at you, their stare is rather intimidating. It makes you feel like they are sizing you up, deciding if you are small enough to swallow whole.
Here's a random thought. To me, the shoebill looks very dinosaur-like. Its scientific name is Balaeniceps rex. In other words, it is named B. rex. If you've seen the Jurassic Park movies, you know what a T. rex's death stare looks like. Well, here's the B. rex's death stare:
Don't get me wrong. I'm not implying that shoebills are ill-tempered or dangerous to people. They actually seem quite tolerant of people (although you have to admit... that stare!). Shoebills in zoos seem to like it when approaching people mimic their movements, including bowing to the bird.
Check out this video of these behaviors in a shoebill in captivity.
If you watch videos of a shoebill, you will see and hear it clacking its bill loudly (you can see this in the above video). This is a common form of communication between the birds. They seem to do it most when they are around their nests, although the specific purpose of the sound is uncertain.
One more item of interest. Adult shoebills are certainly strange-looking birds. You must be wondering what baby shoebills look like. In 2009 the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Florida was only the second zoo in the world to successfully hatch a baby shoebill. As it turns out, newly-hatched shoebills look... well, kind of normal (although maybe a little goofy).
So, the Shoebill deserves a place in the B.A.H.O.F.
(Bumper Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word bumper has numerous meanings. As a noun, it refers to the protective guard on the front of a vehicle, or any other kind of rim, pad, or projection that protects something. It even refers to a glass full to the brim (particularly with beer). In Australia it's a slang word for a cigarette butt. However, when used as an adjective, bumper can mean unusually abundant (such as a bumper crop), but it can also mean unusually large and/or fine. And that, folks, is why I think bumper, particularly when referring to the shoebill, is another way to say awesome!
Everyone needs a creative outlet. That's why I write.