The Shoebill: Africa’s most sought after bird
Uganda is more than just Gorillas. Travelers to Africa have unanimously consented that Uganda not only has a great diversity of wildlife but also a profusion of bird species.
Sir Fredrick Jackson, a former Governor of the Uganda protectorate and keen ornithologist once described Uganda as a “hidden Eden….and a wonderland for birds”.
He was right as no other area in Africa can match Uganda’s amazing diversity of habitats and this richness is reflected in the available 1056 bird species that include the rare shoebill stork – arguably one of the world’s most sought after birds.
Also known as Balaeniceps rex translated as “King Whale head “; the shoe bill is remarkably a striking bird with certain pre-historic looks. It is classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Aves and order Ciconiiformes.
The shoe bill has a large head and unusually long and wide colored bill, which ends in a hooked tip. Standing at 1.5 m in height and sharing attributes with both herons and storks, shoe bills with broad wings, long legs and unwebbed feet live alone in widely spaced pairs.
Some of the places known for viewing of these rare bird species include Entebbe Wildlife Education Centre, Mabamba swamp on the shores of Lake Victoria, the banks of the Nile River in Murchison Falls National Park, Lake Kikorongo in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Lake Kyoga and the southern fringe of Lake Albert that adjoins with the Semliki wildlife reserve.
Their stealthy movements over rafts of floating vegetation, enable them to get hold of prey that include lung fish, water snakes and small crocodiles.
Partially nocturnal and sluggish, the shoe bill obtains its diet by probing the mud with its boot like bill. They also fly with their heads and necks folded back.
As the breeding season approaches usually in the months of April to June, the male and female start engaging in a bill clacking courtship prior to mating and putting up a nest of broken reeds and other aquatic vegetation.
Two eggs are usually laid with both the female and male taking turns incubating them for a period that takes about a month. Two silvery brown chicks are hatched – and do remain helpless for some time. The young birds are dependent on the skillful hunting of their parents.
This goes on for about four months – till the young bills are properly developed. Shoe bills life span usually ranges between forty and forty -five years. Approximately 1000 shoe bills are still believed to survive in different parts of Uganda.
With increasing human population characterized by continued habitat destruction and encroachment the survival of the shoe bill stork is paramount considering the increasing number of dedicated ornithologists as well as the novice bird watcher to Uganda who are coming in big numbers to get a glimpse of this rare bird.