Secretary Bird

© Shem Compion
Secretary Bird.

Name

Secretarybird or secretary bird (Sagittaruis serpentarius)

Appearance

The secretary bird is a bird of prey, but unlike other raptors, it has long a tail and legs. Its most distinctive feature is the 20 black crest feathers stuck behind its invisible ears. The bird gets its name from these feathers that look like the quill pens 19th-century office workers used to tuck behind their ears.

The secretary bird is dove-grey with black on the wings, thighs and elongated central tail feathers. The long legs are feathered half way and resemble knee-length pants. The tail feathers are long and shaggy and have two central black streamers. It stands up to 1.3 m tall. The face is bare and the short, down-curved bill is backed by an area of bare, red and yellow skin. They also have very long eyelashes. The head of the secretary bird and shape of the bill are very similar to those of the caracara (bird of South and Central America).

Secretary Bird Diet

Secretary birds consume snakes, other reptiles, young game-birds, amphibians, tortoises, rats and other small mammals.

Secretary Bird Breeding

Secretary birds pair for life and are remarkably faithful to their nest site. During the breeding season in South Africa there is aggression between the males within a group. The nest is built by both parents and generally placed low in the fork of a tree, usually an Acacia. The huge bundle of sticks grows year by year in the same manner as an eagle’s eyrie. The female lay eggs in May or June and mainly incubate it herself. The two, occasionally three, rough textured white eggs take about 50 days to hatch. The downy young are fed by both parents on a diet of small mammals. They fly after about eight weeks.

Secretary Bird Behaviour

Secretary birds are basically terrestrial, taking to flight only when hard-pressed. They are not particularly gregarious but pair for life and pairs usually stay a small distance apart. Though not a social bird, they often hunt in small groups or pairs and keep in contact by hooting. The secretary bird walks well on extremely long legs and a bird may plod up to twenty miles in a day. If pursued, this bird relies on the speed of its legs but may spread its wings to aid the running. Secretary birds spend a great deal of time on the ground walking around and searching for prey.
When hunting, it spreads its crest feathers like a fan and seeks food with its short hooked bill.

The secretary bird will stamp on grass tussocks with its feet to scare up lizards, grasshoppers and small mammals or birds. Small animals are simply picked up and swallowed but it prefers snakes. It grabs the snake with its strong toes and beats it to death on the ground, while protecting itself from bites with its large wings. The legs are well protected from bites by a layer of thick scales. Finally, it seizes its prey and hurls it into the air several times to stun it. They are opportunistic birds and gather at recently burnt out areas where prey are often injured and without any plant cover. In South Africa, the secretary bird is kept in captivity to destroy snakes and rats.

Habitat

Secretary birds are found in open areas of plains and savanna country and often congregate at areas that have been recently burnt down.

Where they are found

The secretary bird is widespread throughout Africa, south of the Sahara.