The Shoebill

Some birds are staggeringly beautiful, mostly songbirds. Some birds are fierce and alluring, mostly raptors. And some birds are completely, thoroughly weird.

The weird birds can be ugly weird or beautiful weird or just weird-weird. The Shoebill, a stork that resides in a dense forest along the Congo River, the deepest river in the world at 720 feet, is weird-weird.

At first, I thought of the Shoebill as a truly ugly weird. Now I am not so sure. The Shoebill’s image has grown on me the more I’ve looked at it.

This bird is big, standing five-feet tall and has a beak that looks just like the wooden shoes worn by the Dutch of old. The Shoebill’s beak comes straight down its face as he waits to hunt, much like a roadway over flat earth. It almost looks flat there.

The Shoebill is a carnivore, eating birds (especially baby birds), lizards (including crocodile babies and crocodile youngsters), some insects of the large variety, and sundry fish, including the truly disgusting lung fish. Some of those lung fish are close to three feet long, but the Shoebill gobbles them down.

When Shoebills eat, they chew in a way that brings forth the head of the meal to the tip of its bill where it is unceremoniously severed off. The head then drops to the ground where it stays, since the Shoebill only enjoys the body. How it gets the head to the front of its bill is amazing since the rest of the meal’s body is safely lodged in its throat.

Now, that’s weird-weird eating from a weird-weird bird isn’t it? Even a very large human would find it hard to eat a three-foot fish, especially in one long gulp.

The Shoebill’s favorite treat seems to be baby birds. It can stand along the banks of the Congo River and watch a nest up in a tree for hours without moving a muscle. It shows no movement whatsoever and in that stillness—even with the presence of its strange beak—the shoebill could be mistaken for a small boulder.

Sooner or later a baby bird comes falling out of one of the trees to be immediately devoured by the swift and hungry Shoebill.

Unlike the friendly stork of mythology, you wouldn’t want the Shoebill to be in charge of delivering human infants to their mothers and fathers; not if you didn’t want those infants gulped down with only the head remaining for people to identify.

Adult humans do not seem to interest the Shoebill but still—that beak is awfully scary and the fact that it couldn’t bite our heads off is of little comfort.

The sad part about the Shoebills’ story is the fact that, due to encroachment and poaching, the bird is designated as an endangered species. Seems some people think of them as trophies, despite the illegality of killing them or making them pets.

Despite its weirdness, I have come to think of it as a beautifully weird bird and I’d hate to see it disappear forever.

Frank Scoblete’s web site is www.frankscoblete.com. His books are available from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Kindle, e-books and at bookstores. 

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