Don’t let your eyes deceive you – the shoebill stork is a creature that looks like it belongs in a Tim Burton movie. The shoebill is incredibly fascinating to watch, standing taller than a mailbox and having an eight-foot wingspan! This large bird is unique to the swamps and marshes of Central and East Africa and is known for its lesson-in-gray coloration. 

Even when partnered with another bird, the solitary birds prefer their privacy and will forage at separate ends of their area. It used to belong to the shoebill or whale-headed stork family of storks, but today it belongs to the Balaenicipitidae family. 

Sharp edges on its unusually big, splotchy bill enable it to quickly decapitate prey and separate apart foliage that can be grasped by the fish. The upper mandible’s sharp nail tip makes slippery game easier to catch.

A video from Japan Matsue Vogel Park shows just how unique these birds are. One visitor got a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with a shoebill stork. Something we didn’t expect while watching the bird enter the room is the unique noise it makes – sounding just like a fighting scene from an action film. 

Someone commented under the video, making a funny but true statement. They say, “​​I don’t know if I would be more scared hearing the sound of what sounds like a machine gun coming for me, or seeing the thing that is actually making the sound.”

shoebill stork
A loud, hollow sound is produced when the shoebill smacks its upper and lower jaws together

Marek Mihulka/

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The Sounds of a Shoebill

Shoebills are often silent birds that don’t produce a lot of noise. They are experts at patience and can spend endless hours standing motionless in the water while they wait for their next prey to swim by. They only make sounds during mating season. It has a hippopotamus call-like quality to it but is louder. To entice a partner, the birds make a loud interjection and exhibit with their bills. This noise is quite loud and unnerving.

A loud, hollow sound is produced when the shoebill smacks its upper and lower jaws together. These are short, repeated bursts that sound like machine guns or indigenous percussion. When shoebill chicks cry out for food, they emit a sound resembling a human when we hiccup.

Shoebills might be just as vicious as they appeared, as Victorian photographers discovered the hard way. 19th-century zoologist Stanley S. Flower wrote, “The shoebill is capable of inflicting a very powerful bite and is by no means a safe bird for a stranger ignorant of its ways to approach.” Check out how wild this animal sounds in the video below! 

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