The reclusive shoebill is one of the most highly sought-after birds in East Africa. Looking somewhat like a stout-bodied stork with an ugly old clog stuck on its face, the shoebill baffles scientists because it has no clear relative in the bird world.
The shoebill is found in freshwater swamps of central tropical Africa, from southern Sudan and South Sudan through parts of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, the western part of Tanzania and northern Zambia. The species is most numerous in the West Nile sub-region and South Sudan; it is also significant in the wetlands of Uganda and western Tanzania. More isolated records have been reported of shoebills in Kenya, the Central African Republic, northern Cameroon, south-western Ethiopia, Malawi. Vagrant strays to the Okavango Basin, Botswana, and the upper Congo River have also been sighted. The distribution of this species seems to largely coincide with that of papyrus and lungfish. They are often found in areas of flood plain interspersed with undisturbed papyrus and reedbeds. When shoebill storks are in an area with deep water, floating vegetation is a requirement. They are also found in places with poorly oxygenated water, This causes the fish that live in the water to surface for air more often, increasing the likelihood a shoebill stork will easily capture it. The shoebill is non-migratory with limited seasonal movements due to habitat changes, food availability, and human disturbances.
The shoebill occurs in extensive, dense freshwater marshes. Almost all wetlands that attract the species have undisturbed Cyprus papyrus and reed beds of Phragmites and Typha. Although their distribution largely seems to correspond with the distribution of papyrus in central Africa, the species seems to avoid pure papyrus swamps and is often attracted to areas with mixed vegetation. More rarely, the species has been seen foraging in rice fields and flooded plantations.