With its long legs and elegant appearance, the secretary bird is a sight to behold. Found throughout the African savanna, this iconic species is nothing like any other. Read on to learn more about this unique raptor!
1. How it Got its Name is Debated
The secretary bird comes from a separate lineage of all other birds of prey within its order, Accipitriformes. In fact, it is placed in its own family, Sagittariidae, being the only species living today.
The secretary bird’s name origins are rather debatable, but two theories exist. The primary theory stems from the fact that its head crest, made up of long feathers, resembles the quill pens carried from a secretary’s ears. After all, ball-point pens weren’t invented back then just yet! The secretary bird’s grey and black plumage also resembles the clothing that a secretary would wear back in the 1800s, which further supports this theory.
An alternative theory suggests that its name could derive from the Arabic ‘saqr et-tair’, which roughly translates to ‘hunter-bird’. It was initially believed that a traveler heard a few Arabian traders in Sudan call the secretary bird this, which was then corrupted into ‘secrétaire’ in French. This theory is, however, met with skepticism and has even been doubted by some experts.
2. Secretary Birds Prefer Life on the Ground
Secretary birds spend most of their life on the ground, either patrolling along their territory or foraging for food. Being territorial animals, they will fend and chase off other invading secretary birds. Its legs, being the longest of any bird of prey, are well-suited for a terrestrial existence. From a distance, the secretary bird is sometimes confused for a crane or bustard, even though it is closer to eagles, hawks, and vultures. Though it prefers walking, this bird isn’t flightless; it can still fly normally. At night, secretary birds retreat into the trees to roost.
Secretary birds live alone or in pairs, mating for life. Even then, the raptors aren’t always seen together, usually seen short distances apart. They still communicate through simple hoots and croaks. A bonded pair will also cooperate with building nests up in the treetops, from which the female will then lay a small clutch of around one to three eggs inside. Both parents will take turns incubating until they hatch.
3. Secretary Birds Eat a Wide Variety of Prey
The scientific name of the secretary bird is Sagittarius serpentarius, which translates roughly to “snake-archer” in Latin. The secretary bird has a well-known reputation for preying upon venomous snakes. Despite this, snake predation by the raptors is greatly exaggerated. Secretary birds will also prey upon lizards, amphibians, birds, small mammals, and arthropods such as insects, scorpions, and spiders. There have also been reports of secretary birds hunting young gazelles and cheetah cubs. Though it doesn't scavenge from carcasses, secretary birds will take advantage of bushfires to snack on any casualties left behind. Unlike most other birds of prey, this raptor is mainly a terrestrial hunter.
The distinctive, long legs of the secretary bird serve an important purpose for dispatching its prey. When searching for food, this raptor will stomp on nearby vegetation in hopes of flushing them out of the foliage. Depending on its prey’s size, the secretary bird may either catch its prey with its beak or will proceed to repeatedly stomp and kick out its legs while flapping its wings to distract and confuse its prey.
Contrary to popular belief, secretary birds aren’t immune to snake venom, so how do they avoid being bitten by an adder or a cobra? It is believed that with an acute sense of vision, this raptor targets the snake’s head, lashing out a swift kick to dispatch it just before it can strike. This bird can strike extremely fast, faster than the blink of an eye (around 10-15 milliseconds!). To provide extra protection from potential bites, its legs are covered in thick scales.
Like owls and other carnivorous birds, the secretary bird cannot digest all its prey. Fur, bones, and even exoskeletons are often regurgitated while roosting.
4. This Bird is on a Few African Emblems
The regal secretary bird is seen with respect throughout the African continent. This bird of prey has been well-known and respected by humans since antiquity due to its elegant appearance and ability to hunt pests. It has been depicted in a few ancient Egyptian carvings, and the Maasai traditionally used its eggs and body parts to cure medical ailments. The secretary bird is also depicted in the coat of arms of South Africa, which is seen as a symbol of power and majesty. This raptor is also depicted in the national emblem of Sudan and is often treated as the country's national animal.
5. Secretary Birds Need Our Help
As of 2020, the secretary bird is unfortunately listed as endangered by the IUCN Red List. The largest threat to the secretary bird is habitat destruction, mainly due to agricultural purposes. The intense burnings of grasslands deplete potential plant cover their prey species depend on, and the expansion of agricultural fields and settlements has also restricted this bird of prey’s natural habitat. Pesticide use and power-line collisions also pose threats to this animal's survival. The secretary bird is sometimes poached for both body parts and for the pet trade.
Fortunately, conservation programs are being put in place in hopes to protect this bird’s natural habitats, and some zoos across the world are working to establish breeding programs in hopes of preserving this species from extinction. You can help by raising awareness of this magnificent bird among your friends and family. You can also support or donate to organizations working hard to protect the secretary bird and the grasslands it depends on to thrive.