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Shoebill: Balaenicipitidae - Behavior And Reproduction

nest birds days water

Shoebills usually fly low and not very far, but they can also spread their broad wings and soar high on warm air currents. If a shoebill is frightened while feeding, it flies straight up and flaps slowly and silently away, with its head tucked back onto its breast. But it soon lands again and continues to stand or move along silently.

The shoebills living in each part of Africa have learned when it is best for them to breed. In some areas, the birds wait until the beginning of the dry season, when water levels are getting low and fish are easy to catch. Other areas have two rainy seasons, so the birds have to start breeding while it is raining. Then when the young birds need the most fish, the dry season will be starting.

Each pair of shoebills nests by itself, and they defend a wide territory around the nest. The only time they are noisy is during courtship displays, where they bow to each other, clatter their bills, and squeal or whine. The male and female both help to build the nest out of water plants. They start by building a floating platform that is up to 10 feet (3 meters) across. On top of this platform, they build a nest that is about 4.5 feet
(1.4 meters) across. In some places, nests are built on termite mounds that stick out of the water. The birds work the plant stems into the nest by jumping up and down on them and poking them in with their long toes.

Females lay between one and three dull white eggs. The parents take turns sitting on the eggs. On very hot days, they swallow cool water and regurgitate (re-GER-jih-tate) it, spit it up, on the eggs to keep them cool. When the chicks hatch, the parents care for them by shading them from the sun, cooling them with regurgitated water, protecting them from predators, and catching food for them. When a parent arrives at the nest, the downy chicks beg to be fed by making a little noise and pecking at the adult's legs or bill. The adult then regurgitates some food, and the young birds eat out of the parent's bill.

When shoebills are fishing, they stand and point their bills straight down so that they can see with both eyes. When they spot prey, they instantly throw their wings forward and their heads downward, and quickly snap up the prey with their bills. (Robert J. Huffman/Field Mark Publications. Reproduced by permission.)

The young stay in the nest for as long as 105 days. During the first thirty-five days, they cannot stand, and one adult stays with them at all times. After that, both parents leave to hunt for food for the growing chicks. By ninety-five days, the young birds wander off the nest, and they can fly about ten days later.


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