The morning is misty and the air is clearing. I’m sitting in a dug out canoe at Mabamba swamp in Uganda with a fisherman, drifting through papyrus reeds, watching pied kingfishers and long-tailed cormorants balance themselves on flimsy branches, yellow-billed ducks flying over purple waterlilies, long-toed plovers standing on floating stalks, flocks of terns flying about and the African jacana milling in the marshes. All sorts of birds abounded, except the one I drove hours to find- the Shoebill Stork.
This very elusive bird lives in wetlands in very small pockets around Eastern Africa. They may be large- around 5ft tall- but they’re great at hiding and like to be alone. They are primarily solitary birds, doing what they do best alone unless mating or caring for their young. During this time, both parents tend to the eggs and communicate regularly through bill-clattering and other low and high pitched sounds. When the eggs have hatched, they will usually only raise one chick and abandon the rest. It’s not clear as to why, but it has been suggested that investing all the resources into one chick will ensure greater chances of survival. The second egg is usually only hatched as a backup.
Generally however, they exude a no-fuss attitude, with their silent nature, slow and measured steps, and a powerful sense of calm. Their stealthy movements enable them to stalk and lunge at potential meals in the water. They can wait for hours, motionless like a statue, and then suddenly lunge in with its large, sharp and shoe-shaped beak to grab a tasty meal of frog, tilapia, lungfish or similar. Although this rare bird is called a stork, genetically they have more in common with pelicans and herons.
Their imposing size and menacing looks can be intimidating, though not intimidating enough, it would seem, to deter the ones that are causing their sharp decline: fishermen, who disturb their nests and take their food supply; the farmers, who burn their habitats to catch monitor lizards; the hunters, who capture them for the bird trade; and the village populations that continue to encroach on their habitat.
I speak so often about dwindling numbers, and with this bird, it’s no different: there are an estimated 3,300–5,300 mature individuals left in the wild. Raising one chick at a time at a rate of 1 per year also doesn’t help the rapidly falling population. There are just too few of them and they’re dying faster than they can reproduce. While conservation efforts have been underway for decades, just whether impact is being made efficiently and effectively enough remains to be seen.
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