Wildlife Wednesday: The Secretary Bird
Some might describe this as one of Africa’s most interesting looking birds, with a head that resembles an eagle, but powerfully built, long bare looking legs that one would associate with storks! It is; however, a bird of prey and it belongs to a taxonomical family all of its own. Being the tallest birds of prey, they are about as tall as an average ten-year-old, roughly about 1 – 1.2m tall.
It’s an interesting name, with the most popular belief being the feathers on its head resemble the 19th-century quill pens of secretaries of that day. It’s scientific name, however – as is most common with scientific names- gives the most apt description of this bird; Sagittarius serpentarius – Latin for “archer of serpents”.
It appears on national emblems of not one, but two countries – Sudan and our very own South Africa.
They live about 10 – 15 years in the wild. Even though they prefer to spend time on the ground, travelling up to 30km a day, relative to their size, they are quite good fliers. They nest on the tops of Acacia (now known as Vachellia) thorn trees at night, then venture down during the daytime to start their daily hunt – unless they have chicks in their nest. In this case, parental duties are shared to look after the 1-3 chicks the female hatches. These birds’ pair for life and use the same nest several years in a row; its size expanding each time new eggs are laid.
Snakes – beware! Even though they form a small percentage of the diet, Secretary birds are formidable snake hunters. They use the thickened soles of their feet to stamp on and stun their prey before eating it. The force with which it stomps snakes is about equivalent to 20kg worth! The most amazing thing it does while all this stomping is going on is open its wings wide and keep them moving in order to protect itself from bites, as well as distract the snake’s attention from striking out to bite the bird.
The biomechanics of the Secretary bird has provided valuable insights and could provide an innovative design on prosthetic limb development for humans.
This magnificent species of bird is in decline, classified as vulnerable, mostly due to habit destruction. They’re a unique bird of prey, having been a protected species since 1968, but if we aren’t careful, they too could become an endangered species.