The Secretary Bird stalks across grasslands like a monarch. Tall and striking, it’s certainly not a LBJ (little brown job). It’s a bird like no other and can’t be ignored – it even has a Family (Sagittariidae) all to itself. Its Latin name Sagittarius serpentarius means “archer of snakes”. Once you have seen a secretary bird, it will stick in your mind.
It’s not only memorable, but also contradictory. It is a raptor with strong wings, but seldom flies high. It has formidable feet, but doesn’t catch its prey with these talons. It has a strong curved beak, but doesn’t tear its prey apart like other raptors.
So let’s look at what we know about Secretary Birds.
This iconic African bird is found singly or in pairs throughout sub-Saharan Africa in grasslands, savannas, and even shrub lands. It also struts its stuff as far south as the wheat fields of the Overberg. It’s difficult to estimate the population size because, although they are wide-spread, they are thin on the ground.
Secretary Bird. Photo: iNaturalist
The Secretary bird is a gorgeous long-legged terrestrial bird of prey, vaguely resembling a crane. It has grey plumage on the upper wings and back, and pale grey underparts. The flight feathers are black. It has grey tail feathers, with two very long, narrow central tail feathers tipped in black and white. There is a very identifiable erectile spreading crest of black-tipped feathers on the head. It has long, powerful, stork-like legs with black thigh feathers – looking rather like bicycle shorts. The lower legs are almost bare of feathers, but are well protected by scales.
There is very noticeable bare skin on their faces around the eyes, ranging in colour from red to yellow to orange. They have gorgeous long eyelashes – as if from an animated cartoon. The lashes are not made of hair as ours are, but are modified feathers.
They have the hooked beak of a raptor.
Secretary birds are big birds, with a height of up to 1.5m, and a wingspan of over 2m. It could look the average human straight in the eyes with its Bette Davis eyes.
Secretary birds are diurnal, meaning they are active during the daylight hours, especially in the early morning. They can walk up to 24 km daily through the grasslands looking for prey. They nod their heads back and forth as they go, and stamp their feet repeatedly on thick grass to flush out prey. They eat grasshoppers, lizards and other reptiles, small mammals, birds and – their favourite food – snakes. The scales on the lower legs offer protection against snake bites.
The bird is well adapted to its method of hunting, which is quite different from other terrestrial creatures. The long legs enable it to walk through grasslands easily without having its vision obscured. It uses its wings as a shield and distraction to confuse the prey. It doesn’t catch the prey with its beak, but unleashes a formidable karate kick with those powerful legs on the unfortunate victim, either stunning or killing it directly. Snakes are a bit of a trickier target, but a punch or two with those strong feet and a strike from the hooked beak is generally all that’s needed.
Secretary birds are monogamous and are thought to pair for life. In courtship, they give a croaking call while displaying in the air or on the ground. Aerial displays by the male consist of high soaring and diving. On the ground, the courtship displays are very crane-like, with the two birds dancing around with their wings outstretched in foreplay, before mating.
A pair of birds will build a large stick nest in the top of a low thorny tree, such as an acacia. The flat nest is lined with grass and may be used for several years. The female lays one to three eggs. Both parents share incubation duties and both invest heavily in the care of their young.
After hatching, the chicks are downy and helpless, sprouting their feathers only at about 30 days and fledging at about two months. There is no competition between chicks and often more than one youngster is raised. Both the male and female feed the young via regurgitation, although mostly the female regurgitates food that the male has brought back to the nest for her. When the chicks fledge and leave the nest, the parents will teach them how to hunt for prey before they become fully independent.
Secretary birds are not migratory; they tend to stay resident in one place and defend their territory. If food becomes scarce they may follow plagues of insects or rodents.
Despite their essentially terrestrial nature, secretary birds are good flyers. If disturbed they will run, lift off and glide on open wings. They can also soar like eagles or vultures, and can reach altitudes of 3000 metres.
The origins of the secretary bird’s common name are much debated. One theory is that the crest feathers jutting out behind the bird’s head reminded Victorians of the quill pens that secretaries tucked behind their ears, while its grey and black body was reminiscent of their tailcoats. A more recent theory is that the name derives from the Arabic ‘saqr-et-tair’, or ‘hunter bird’.
The secretary bird appears on the South African coat-of-arms that was introduced on Freedom Day, 27 April 2000. The bird, with outstretched wings below a rising sun, symbolises “protection of the nation”. Below it, forming the chest of the bird, is a stylised king protea flower, symbolising the beauty of the land. The motto is written in the Khoisan language of the ǀXam people, and translates to “diverse people unite”.
A noble ambition. Let’s all make it happen.