Bird Buddy Blog

What is that? Birds you maybe didn’t (want to) know existed.

Courtesy of eBird

Birds. Aren’t they beautiful? Look at their little feathered faces. Oh, hang on. What on Earth is that? Today, we take a look at some of the world’s less photogenic birds and learn more about their lives, looking beyond the book’s cover.

Not Just a Pretty Face

Few people can fail to be moved by the fluffy cuteness of the long-tailed tit, the serene beauty of the drifting swan, the assured nobility of the stalwart bullfinch, or the striking good looks of the peregrine falcon. The endless varieties of bird’s physical attributes keep us constantly fascinated, eager to learn more. But every now and again during our search, we come across some bird faces that seem to shift something deep down in our stomachs, some primeval instinct to run, to hide, to hope it passes by our psyche without smelling our fear.

Ladies and gentlemen, roll up, roll up, get your tickets here, and sit back in awe and horror as we unveil to you, our privileged audience, three birds that are the stuff of winged nightmares.

The Shoebill

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It’s not just the enormous bill occupying practically all of its face. It’s not just the soul-hollowing primal, icy stare.

We’re not ranking these birds on some kind of horror scale, but this bird takes the first slot simply by the fact that it is so undeniably strange. It’s not just the enormous bill occupying practically all of its face. It’s not just the soul-hollowing primal, icy stare. It’s not even the improbably thin legs it stalks about on. It’s the whole unique otherworldliness of it, the fact that there are no other species of this bird in the galaxy. It has only two very distant relatives in its lineage, examples of both found fossilised in Egypt. It doesn’t even come in any other colour.

Closely related to pelicans, this bird has been known in the past as the shoebill pelican and the shoebill stork, but those classifications have been debated or discarded along the way. Its almost as if scientists just wanted to put it with something else to stop it being so odd.

But this bird is fascinating, and we’ve grown to love it. Let’s talk about that bill. The end of that wide, long plummeting facade is a sharp curved point, which is what it uses to dismember its prey. Living in the marshes of Uganda, this throwback to the dinosaurs will stand for literally hours in the same spot, quiet, blinking, waiting. Eels, lungfish, snakes – anything that crosses its path, really – will be snatched at and impaled and torn. Shoebills are aggressive defenders of their territories, living alone, fighting alone. They have even been known to take on Nile crocodiles, and sometimes win.

These sentient patient creatures go big in lots of ways. They can live to be in their mid-thirties, can weigh up to 5kg, grow up to 1.5m tall, their feet are massive, coming in at around 18cm, and that bill can be up to 24cm long and 20cm wide, often making up a quarter of the bird’s total size. They are also mostly silent except for a series of staccato machine gun calls when mating, and every now and again will emit a sort of mooing noise, which suddenly makes them cute. We love them really.

Marabou Stork

Courtesy of eBird

This bird is so unnaturally frightening that a British author, Irvine Welsh, wrote a suitably nasty and traumatising novel called Marabou Stork Nightmares. Not for the faint-hearted.

This huge sub-Saharan stork comes in at an average of 1.5m tall like our lovely shoebills, but weighs almost 9kg. They do fly, and a marvellous adaptation to overcome this weight / flight conundrum is that the bones in their legs and toes are hollow, making that great skeleton a bit easier to lift. They possess a large gular sac, a feature seen on many species of birds that is a featherless expanse of skin hanging from beneath the lower jaw down the neck. This was once thought to be used for food storage, but now scientists believe it plays a part in courtship. The Latin name for the sac is crumeniferus, which translates as a pouch for money.

The appearance of this gargantuan bird cannot be understated. The dark cloak-like wings, the skinny white legs, sometimes a small tuft of white hair atop the otherwise bare head, and that indomitable long, thick, sharp beak; it is little wonder they are also known as undertaker birds. And with that namesake comes the character. Hanging out with vultures, the scavenging marabou stork dines on discarded lion-kills and other unfortunate beasts since passed on, breaking through hides with that massive bill. Not fussy, it will also ransack domestic stockyards and landfill sites. During breeding season, though, its tastes are somewhat elevated, and instead catches pigeon, dove, pelican and cormorant chicks to feed live to it’s young. Ever the opportunist, they can also be seen marching up and down in front of shrub fires to prey on other animals fleeing for their lives. It is a little hard to find redeeming features about this bird, but we found one! They absolutely love termites, and can often be seen standing on top of the mounds feasting on the swarming insects. Termites can cause huge devastation to habitats, so these storks keep numbers in check. Thanks guys!

Dracula Parrot

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

OK, we’re cheating a bit with the dramatics here – this bird is known as the Dracula parrot, but is actually called Pesquet’s parrot. But come on, look at it. Dracula parrot.

Existing solely on a diet of figs, and not the blood of virgins.

This darkly handsome fellow lives in New Guinea, and is one of those rare birds of the world in that it is the only member of its genus, just like our dear old friend the shoebill. Aside from the dramatic red and black plumage and the scaly grey chest, this bird is actually rather adorable. Existing solely on a diet of figs, and not the blood of virgins, this parrot is classed as vulnerable on the IUCN threatened species list. Not only does the specific diet limit its range, habitat loss and poaching has led to a horrific decline in numbers in recent years. Very little is known about this bird, and whilst habits are now being studied, it is known that it likes to be around other parrots, and lays two eggs in a hollow tree during the breeding season. And, whilst it isn’t really that scary to look at once you get used to it, were you to hear it in a dark forest at night, you might think differently. Its call has been described as both a harsh, rasping growl, and a long drawn out scream.

Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder

We know it isn’t fair to malign a creature for the way it looks, so we hope you haven’t taken our jibing to heart too much. Each of these weird and wonderful birds has their place in the world, and the world would be poorer without them. The marabou stork thrives at the moment, but no bird is completely out of danger. The shoebill and Pesquet’s parrot need looking out for right now, and it is only through well-funded research and study the world can learn of the threats that these and all other birds across the world face. Love the shoebill, respect the marabou, care for the Dracula parrot, and treat all birds the same as you would do, for the things you decide are beautiful and worthy of your protection.

Each of these weird and wonderful birds has their place in the world, and the world would be poorer without them.