The King of the Marsh

by Valerie Principe on March 26, 2023
Audio Version

The lion may be king of the jungle, but the shoebill is king of the marsh!

In the freshwater swamps of eastern Africa, a bird known as the shoebill looks over its hunting grounds. Its impressive height, sharp gaze, and commanding call make the other creatures take notice. But this regal bird doesn’t wear a crown. Instead, it has a unique beak that’s nearly a foot long—and roughly the shape of a shoe.

The incredible design of the shoebill shows God’s provision and creative genius, but its deadly diet shows how sin corrupted God’s perfect world.

A Brutal Bite

It’s not hard to guess how the shoebill got its name. The bird’s sneaker-sized beak is one of the largest bills on any living bird—and might just be the most impressive. The shoebill uses its beak as the perfect all-in-one utensil for swamp meals. The beak’s size and shape make it especially suited for scooping up prey from swamp water (like a giant spoon). Its sharp, hooked tip does the job of both a fork and knife, making it easy for the shoebill to secure and slice through its catch—bones and all!

The shoebill is famous as a ferocious predator. After all, you don’t get the nickname “king of the marsh” by being gentle and timid. This ruthless ruler would sooner swallow its subjects than serve them. But things weren’t always that way. The Bible tells us that all creatures were originally created to be vegetarian (Genesis 1:30). This means the original members of the shoebill kind would have used their beaks for eating plants instead of other animals. Sadly, after Adam and Eve sinned and death entered the world, many creatures became predators—animals that hunt other animals for food.

Fun Facts

  • Shoebills have a wingspan of up to 8 feet! But even with their impressive height and width, the birds only weigh 11–12 pounds—about as much as a house cat.
  • Despite their massive wings, shoebills only fly short distances.
  • Shoebills often nest near hippopotamuses. The paths of trampled vegetation left by these large creatures are great places for shoebills to fish.
  • Shoebills can live up to 35 years. That’s almost 4 times the lifespan of a bluebird!

A Lone Leader

The shoebill begins fighting for the right to rule shortly after it’s born. A female shoebill can lay up to three eggs when nesting. But when her chicks are about two months old, the oldest chick often tries to push the younger birds from the nest or even attacks them so that it can get all the care and attention from its mother. In most cases, only one chick in the nest lives to adulthood. This aggressive behavior is a sad example of how sin has turned God’s perfect and peaceful creation into a fierce struggle for survival.

Adult shoebills don’t like to share any more than their chicks do. When hunting, shoebills stay as far away from each other as possible, usually at opposite sides of their territory. Unlike songbirds and flamingos, these birds of a feather don’t flock together.

A Stern Statue

Lots of kings throughout history had statues made of themselves to show off their power, but the shoebill is its own living statue. The shoebill can stand completely still and silent for hours at a time. However, unlike a real statue, the shoebill’s stillness is just an act to trap its unsuspecting prey. As soon as food is within reach, the shoebill snaps out of its motionless state and leaps into action.

A Dangerous Diet

If you were king, you could ask your royal chef to cook you any food you wanted—pizza, mac and cheese, or chicken nuggets! But if you were king of the marsh, like the shoebill, your menu might look a little different. The shoebill’s favorite meal is lungfish—long skinny fish that look like eels. Unlike most other fish, lungfish breathe through lungs kind of like yours. When the fish come to the surface of the water for air, the shoebill jumps at the chance for its favorite snack. Lungfish can be up to four feet long—almost as long as the shoebill is tall!—but that doesn’t stop the hungry bird from slurping them up like swamp spaghetti.

With its large, hooked beak, the shoebill can also catch and eat creatures such as turtles, monitor lizards, and even young crocodiles.

A Bizarre Birdsong

By clapping its large beak together, the shoebill makes a loud noise that has been compared to a firing machine gun. Waking up to a shoebill’s “song” wouldn’t make for a peaceful morning, but it would sure get you out of bed quickly!

Trouble in the Territory

The shoebill may be a fierce ruler, but it isn’t a threat to us. Humans visiting its kingdom are often greeted with gentleness and friendliness. Unfortunately, people can be a threat to the shoebill. There are only around 3,300–5,300 adult shoebills left in the world—and that number is shrinking. Hunting and capturing these birds or disturbing their nests and habitats could cause them to become endangered, or worse, extinct.

When God created man in his image, he gave him the task of ruling over and caring for every other living thing on earth. That’s why it’s important for each of us to be good stewards of the world God made. This includes being careful to leave some land available for creatures to call home. Without a habitat, the shoebill could become extinct. But with a little care for God’s creation and some self-control, we can help preserve our fierce feathered friend’s swamp kingdom and all the creatures that live in it.

Vacay Every Day

Island vacations are a dream come true. The sun, the sand, and the sound of the sea—who wouldn’t want to live that life every day? For shoebills, island living is just part of the routine. The birds pile up plant material to create floating islands of vegetation in the swamp. They use these floating mobile homes as a safe place to lay their eggs and raise their chicks.

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