The Shoebill is a very large bird. The adult is 115-150 cm (45-59 in) tall, 100-140 cm (40-55 in) long, 230-260 cm (91-103 in) across the wings and weighs 4 to 7 kg (8.8-15.5 lbs). The adult is mainly grey while the juveniles are browner. It lives in tropical east Africa in large swamps from Sudan to Zambia.
This species was only discovered in the 19th century when some skins were brought to Europe. It was not until years later that live specimens reached the scientific community. However, the bird was known to both ancient Egyptians and Arabs. There are Egyptian images depicting the Shoebill, while the Arabs referred to the bird as abu markub, which means one with a shoe, a reference to the bird's distinctive bill.
Shoebills feed in muddy waters, preying on lungfish and similar fish. They nest on the ground and lay 2 eggs.
The population is estimated at between 5,000 and 8,000 individuals, the majority of which live in Sudan. BirdLife International have classified it as Vulnerable with the main threats being habitat destruction, disturbance and hunting.
The Shoebill is one of the bird taxa whose taxonomic treatment is murky. Traditionally allied with the storks (Ciconiiformes), it was retained there in the Sibley-Ahlquist taxonomy which lumped a massive number of unrelated taxa into their "Ciconiiformes". More recently, the shoebill has been considered to be closer to the pelicans (based on anatomical comparisons; Mayr, 2003) or the herons (based on biochemical evidence; Hagey et al., 2002). The fossil record does not shed much light on the issue, as usual when dealing with birds. So far, two fossil relatives of the shoebill have been described: Goliathia from the early Oligocene of Egypt and Paludavis from the Early Miocene of the same country. It has been suggested that the enigmatic African fossil bird Eremopezus was a relative too, but the evidence for that is very spurious indeed. All that is known of Eremopezus is that it was a very large, probably flightless bird with a flexible foot, allowing it to handle either vegetation or prey.
World's first Shoebill in captivity was born in July 2008 at Parc Paradisio in Belgium.