Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Silent Stillness of a Shoebill's Stare

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Silent Stillness of a Shoebill's Stare

Article excerpt

A few days ago, my son, Lucas, and I took the train to Prague for his school break. Usually, when I visit a city, my first port of call is whatever passes for a botanical garden but when he told me that Prague's zoo contained not only giant salamanders but also two pairs of shoebills, I could not resist the temptation. On my last visit to the Czech capital, some 17 years ago, I had avoided the zoo (a general policy before I had children: the sight of animals in captivity depresses my spirits, even when the zoo is humane and well designed); but the prospect of a giant salamander--supposedly, the inspiration for Karel Capek's feverish sci-fi classic War with the Newts--and what might well be the most enigmatic of all birds, forced me to set aside my misgivings.

Yet, while the salamanders were suitably sinister-seeming (one had recently bitten off a keeper's finger when the presumptuous fellow tried to sex it), it was the shoebill who won our hearts. (Although the zoo is said to hold two breeding pairs, we encountered only a single bird.) This may seem odd, because shoebills don't do much: they tend to stand very still for long periods of time and, natural solitaries, make it all too clear that they feel nothing but disdain for spectators. In the wild, they are formidable hunters, taking not only fish but water snakes and even small crocodiles; and, though they do keep company sometimes, it is only for as long as it takes to mate. I suspect that, once that tedious ritual is over, they're glad to get back to what they do best. Here, in captivity, stared at by the likes of me, Prague Zoo's fine specimen seemed bored and perhaps a little bemused by the attention.

On my side, though, the encounter was unforgettable. Staring into this powerful bird's beady eye--its extraordinary face more African mask than that of a bird --I felt connected for a moment to something old and original, some Ur-presence that both excited and unsettled me. …

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