Health/Sci-TechLifestyleVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 16

The African bird that eats baby crocodiles

This menacing and prehistoric-looking bird can grow up to 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall – and is equipped with a sharp-edged, 1-foot-long (0.3 meter) bill — the third-largest bird beak in the world.

Its giant bill and long, skinny legs make it a formidable ambush predator —standing completely still before lunging forward to grab unsuspecting prey and swallow it whole. A 2015 study published in the Journal of African Ornithology found that catfish were its most common prey, making up around 71% of its meals. However, the shoebill is also known to feast on eels, snakes and even baby crocodiles.

Shoebills are mostly solitary, but breeding pairs are monogamous and lay up to three eggs in a clutch — though, due to rivalry between siblings, usually only one survives to adulthood. This is typically the larger first-born, which either out-competes any siblings for food, or kills them.

The second or third chicks are essentially spares that serve as a backup if the first doesn’t survive. This behavior was captured in a clip from the BBC David Attenborough series “Africa,” showing the older chick biting at its younger sibling. When the mother returns to the nest, it offers no care to the smaller offspring.

Although sometimes incorrectly referred to as a stork, the shoebill is actually the only member of the Balaeniceps genus and the wider family Balaenicipitidae, with its closest living relatives being pelicans. Its ancestors from the Pelecaniformes order emerged at the end of the Cretaceous period (145 million to 66 million years ago).

The big-billed bird is listed as vulnerable on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List, with just 5,000 to 8,000 birds left.