Balaeniceps rex

IUCN Status: vulnerable


Shoebills are "piscivores"! A diet of lungfish and catfish with the occasional tilapia are hunted from their typical statuesque pose seen on reedbed wetlands. They can take prey up to 1 metre in length but these are then cut with their sharp serrated beak into smaller pieces and eaten over time. Typical fish size is the "one swallow" size at around 15 -25cm. Our shoebill eats freshwater roach and the occasional trout. Snakes, frogs, eels, small waterfowl, rodents and even carrion have been seen being devoured in the wild.


Very difficult in captivity! Shoebills are naturally solitary - just as well for our shoebill as she is the only unpaired shoebill in the breeding program and has been for a while! In the wild two eggs are laid after courtship and the last to hatch is allowed to die while the parents focus on the oldest chick. In captivity the second chick can be hand reared away from the parents. Eggs are laid on a floating mat of vegetation deep within reed beds timed for the chicks to hatch just before the wet season. Their "shoe like" bill is used to carry water to dampen the nest and chick as it is reared.

At The Zoo

Abu's parents are both in Pairi Daiza Zoo in Belgium. At 15 years of age she has barely become middle aged and she has a new enclosure being built around her. The hope of the breeding program is to pair her with the next captive bred shoebill from the other three pairs! There are only 8 adults (including her mum and dad) plus Abu in the European breeding program. Abu is locked into her inside quarters and kept warm during the winter and has access to her outside environment on the better weather days during our colder months. Summertime she can chose to stay outside in full sun/warm rain or seek the shade of her internal housing. She is easily viewed in her characteristic statue pose usually over the top of one of her food buckets waiting for her provided meal to move (it never does) but it mimics her hunting pattern and technique in the wild. Video link:


Inland water ways of reed beds (papyrus) of at least 4 kilometres in size in the Eastern African tropics! Given a preference they hunt on poorly oxygenated water ways where their principle diet is forced to come to the surface to breathe (hence cat and lung fish). If you enjoy looking at birds this is one of the top 5 bird species to see in Africa! All the keepers bow to "Queen Abu" as she greets them when they enter her enclosure. You may also see her beak clapping and encouraging the keeper to stay with her as she likes human company because she was hand reared.

Fun Facts

They are extremely slow moving and stay very, very still for long periods of time! DNA has shown their closest relatives are pelicans despite looking like a stork! Often called "whale heads" directly translated from their Latin scientific name the beak has to be one of the most unique in the bird world!


They are solitary and where they do occur relatively near each other they maintain a distance of at least 20 metres. A breeding adult pair will try and establish a territory of 2-400 square metres.