Secretary Bird The Secretary Bird (Sagittarius serpentarius) is a large raptor related to hawks and eagles. This large, terrestrial bird of prey is endemic to the open grasslands in sub-saharan Africa. The Secretary Bird is famed for being the prominent emblem of Sudan and South Africa and appears on both nations coat of arms.
Secretary birds are so called because of their quill-like crests on the backs of their heads that resemble 18th century clerks with pens tucked into their wigs.
Secretary Bird Description
The Secretary bird has the appearance more like a stork or crane than a bird of prey. These tall birds can measure 1.3 – 1.4 metres (around 4.5 feet) in height, weigh 3.3 kilograms (7.3 pounds) and have a wingspan of over 2 metres (6.6 feet). The Secretary bird has a small head with small eyes and a hooked beak. Its plumage is a light bluish/grey and it has a red coloured face. Flight feathers are black and they have black feathers on the thighs and on the back of their heads. Their legs are long and powerful and are used for striking and pursuing prey.
Secretary birds have 2 central elongated feathers on their tail which extend beyond their feet when in flight. They have tough scales on their legs to help protect their legs from snake bites. Secretary birds do not have grasping toes like other birds of prey, instead their toes are thick and blunt with short curved talons on the ends. Both male and female are similar in appearance.
Secretary Bird Habitat
Secretary birds prefer open grasslands, steppe and tree-dotted savannas. They live in areas where grass is fairly short so they can see prey more easier as they walk along. They build large nests in Acacia trees or thorn trees made from long, flat twigs and grass and can measure 8 feet wide and 1 foot deep. Nests grow larger year by year. Nests are returned to just before dark to roost in over night after a days hunting on the ground. Secretary birds avoid forests and dense shrubberies as they might restrict their movement.
Secretary Bird Diet
Secretary birds are diurnal carnivorous raptors who feed up on a variety of prey. They are famous for their ability to kill snakes on the African grasslands. The secretary bird may travel over 30 kilometres a day in search of snakes, insects and other animals. They feed up on snakes such as Adders and even Cobras but will also consume lizards, amphibians, rodents and birds eggs. Small animals are eaten whole, however, larger prey is stamped to death before being consumed.
Dangerous prey, such as snakes, are first stamped on to stun them and then pecked behind their neck to kill them. The secretary bird also stamps on the ground with its large stout-toed feet to flush prey out of hiding.
Secretary Bird Behaviour
Secretary birds are territorial and occupy areas of around 40 – 50 square kilometres. Although the secretary bird is a good flyer, it spends most of its time on the ground. It flies well but needs a long take-off run prior to leaving the ground. Secretary birds mate for life and although out of breeding season they can be solitary, the other half of a pair is usually not far away. Secretary birds are silent nearly all of the time. The only sound they make is a croaking sound when displaying for a mate.
Secretary Bird Reproduction
Courtship includes a mutual display of chasing each other with wings spread up and backwards much like they perform when chasing ground prey. Mating takes place either on the ground or in their large nests up high in Acacia trees. The female lays 2 – 3 oval, pale green eggs over a period of 2 – 3 days. The rough textured eggs are incubated by the female for 45 – 50 days.
Young secretary birds have yellow skin on their faces and a downy plumage. They are fed regurgitated food from their parents. The young can flap their wings at 60 days old and fledge around 80 days old. Although they still remain in the nest for most of the time, they go on expeditions with their parents who teach them hunting skills.
Secretary Bird Conservation Status
The Secretary Bird is classed as ‘Least Concern’ although young are vulnerable to other birds of prey when left alone in nests and the secretary bird itself is threatened by loss of habitat and deforestation. The species became a protected bird in 1968 under the Africa Convention of Nature and Natural Resources.