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Secretary Birds

Houston, TX
South African national Coat of Arms
South Africa Coat of Arms

Have you ever heard about the secretary bird (Sagittarius serpentarius)? They are also referred to as hunter-birds because of how they hunt their food. They are the tallest raptor, or bird of prey, in the world. There are approximately 482 species of raptors, which are distant relatives of the Secretary Bird. The secretary bird, the sole species of the Sagittarius family, was initially documented by John Frederick Miller in 1779. They live south of the Sahara Desert and are endemic to the open grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa. They are also found in Senegal, east of Somalia, and south of South Africa. They prefer savannas with scattered acacia trees and short grasses as it is easy for them to look around while strolling. The Secretary Bird is famed for being the prominent emblem of Sudan and South Africa and appears on both nations' coats of arms. 19th-century men secretaries used to wear gray tailcoats and dark knee-length pants. They also had quill pens stuck behind their ears. Since this bird has similar looks, the bird got its name. 


The Secretary Bird appears more like a stork or a crane than a bird of prey. It has an eagle-like head and body placed on crane-like legs. The crane-like legs help the bird get a better view of potential prey. But the bird can fly and usually has a 75–85-inch (6.25 - 7.03) wingspan. It is around 4.5 feet in height and weighs about 3.3 kilograms. Its body displays a light blue-gray hue, accompanied by a reddish-orange face devoid of feathers. The Secretary bird also has small, dark eyes with pretty long eyelashes and a hooked beak. Immature Secretary Birds have yellow rather than orange skin around their eyes, more brownish plumage, shorter tail feathers, and grayish rather than brown irises. The neck of a fully grown Secretary Bird can only reach the intertarsal joint, so the Secretary Bird must stoop to reach the ground. The Secretary Bird’s flight feathers are black, including the feathers on its thighs and back of their head. They have long legs that they use for stomping prey. The legs also have tough scales to help protect their legs from snake bites. But to hunt prey, the Secretary Bird walks more than 12 to 18 miles (20-30 km) every day. That would be like walking the length of an American football field three hundred times or more! Their toes aren’t like other birds of prey, which have grasping toes. The Secretary Bird's toes are thick, blunt, and curved at the end. The feet are used for stomping and lack significant grasping ability since food is eaten right away or carried away in the beak. 


Secretary bird
Secretary Bird Anatomy - Image Source: What-When-How.com

Secretary Birds are carnivores and insectivores. They eat snakes, insects, lizards, rodents, birds, and bird eggs. They consume smaller prey, while larger prey like snakes are stomped on before consumption. To ingest dangerous snake species, such as cobras and adders, secretary birds rely on their stomping technique to stun the prey, then prick it with their beaks to kill it. Secretary Bird flaps its feathers while attacking the snakes to confuse the victim; during the fight, snakes may bite the bird’s flapping feathers, and it does not harm the bird.

secretary bird stomping a snake
secretary bird hunting on snake

Sometimes, the Secretary Bird might stomp on the ground to flush out prey that might be hiding. Taking advantage of recent wildfires, secretary birds often comb through the burn site in search of small prey that couldn't flee the blaze, showcasing their cleverness. Apart from their stomping technique, the birds also chase down their prey. When attacking prey, the Secretary Bird spreads its wings and raises its feathered crest on the back of its head. Studies have shown that dinosaur-like terror birds that wandered Earth 5 million years ago may have used the same attack strategy as the Secretary Bird! 


The Secretary Bird is an incredibly quiet bird. It occasionally makes a deep guttural or croaking sound. They produce this sound while greeting a mate, in a threat display, in a fight against other birds, or defending a territory or a nest, as crows and kites may try to steal the nestlings. When it feels alarmed, it makes one high croak. Chicks also make sounds. They make chirping sounds that change to squeals and loud brays as they get older. Hear the sounds of Secretary Bird here: Secretary bird sound


Both male and female Secretary Birds are similar in appearance. However, the males have longer tail feathers, more head plumes, a shorter head, and more blue-gray plumage than females do. 

male and female secretary bird
male and female secretary bird

Secretary Birds have only one life partner throughout their life and have more than one chick, unlike most birds. They have a territory that is around 50 km2 (19 sq miles). They breed during any time of the year, more frequently during the late dry season. During the Secretary Bird’s courtship, they soar in wide circles and perform swoops and downwards plunges, sometimes grasping talons in midair and making a deep guttural sound. Both sexes also perform a grounded display where they chase each other with their wings up and backward. They also defend their territory this way. They usually nest on top of a dense thorny tree, like an Acacia Tree or a bush, if they can’t find any tree. The nest is often built from twigs, sticks, mammal fur, dung, leaves, and grasses and reaches up to 8 feet (2.4 meters) across. The couple works on the nest and visits it for 6 months, and pairs use the same nest for years. The female usually lays 1-3 elongated, chalky green eggs every 2-3 days and does the incubation. The eggs hatch after 45 days. Both parents feed liquified insects and other small prey. By 3 weeks, they start to gain the Secretary Bird face with long eyelashes and growing crest feathers. After a few days, the parents start to feed small, torn-up pieces of meat to the youngsters. At about 40 days, the chicks learn to digest small mammal and lizard parts the parents drop directly onto the nest. That’s also about the time they learn to stand and feed themselves. By 6 weeks, they are fully feathered, mini versions of their parents, and by 9 weeks they start to exercise their wings. At 12 weeks, they start to fledge. Then, the parents teach them basic life necessities, and the youngsters leave the nest soon after that. 


We still have more to learn about Secretary Bird's habits and lifestyle. Multiple factors disturb the survival of the species, including habitat loss and fragmentation by roads and development, overgrazing, livestock, hunting, persecution, and poisoning. Secretary Birds are classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, and their numbers continue to decline due to all these factors. The Secretary Bird receives protection under the Africa Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources established in 1968. Its growing popularity among Africans may contribute to its future preservation efforts, fostering optimism for a potential population increase. 


References


Glossary

Endemic  - Native to a certain region.

Intertarsal  - Between the tarsal bones.

Crest - a comb or tuft of feathers, fur, or skin on the head of a bird or other animal

Guttural - a sound that is harsh-sounding and produced in the throat.

Plumes - a long, soft feather or arrangement of feathers used by a bird as display / ornament

Plumage - a bird’s feathers collectively 

Courtship - a romantic relationship period.

Plunges - jump or dive quickly and energetically

Talons - a claw that belongs to a bird of prey.

Fledge - a controlled flapping of wings until the chick hits the ground.

Persecution  - practice.


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