The Secretarybird looks like a cross between a hawk and a crane, a crested carnivore that walks to the office wearing pink and black leggings and kills with kicks.
By Rex Graham
A fossil of a hawk that lived more than 5 million years ago in North America surprised ornithologists with its key similarities in the bones of the wings, feet and lower-leg with the Secretarybird. That hawk, which lived in extensive grasslands similar to today’s African savannah, is regarded as an ancestral form of the Secretarybird.
The origin of the bird’s common name is more mysterious than its evolutionary past. The urban legend is that its crest resembles feathered quills or other writing implements stuck behind the ear of a secretary.
This vulnerable bird as tall as a child is relatively easy to spot walking the African savannah. Females are slightly shorter and less blue than males.
Secretarybird No Seed-eating Bustard
Since the shape of the Secretarybird is so unlike its raptor cousins, it might seem plausible that it’s related to the slightly smaller Kori Bustard, another African grassland bird. However, the Secretarybird’s digestive tract is much shorter than the bustard’s and has a foregut adapted to handle large quantities of flesh. On the other hand, the bustard is clearly more vegetarian: it has voluminous folds in its digestive tract called ceca that operate as vats to ferment plant material.
The Secretarybird’s scientific name, Sagittarius serpentarius, hints at its highest talent – snake killer. It is sometimes called serpent eagle. It eats any and all snakes, venomous or not. It approaches the reptiles shielding its body with its wings, and then violently kicks the life out of its victims. Occasionally, a Secretarybird will drop a snake from the air to dispatch it.
An autopsy of one female Secretarybird found 13 grasshoppers and eight snakes in its crop and stomach. However, they eat birds, rodents, lizards and other small animals. Secretarybirds have been protected because of their snake-killing prowess, but their numbers decline wherever grasslands are plowed for agriculture.
Secretarybirds on Tour
Rockjumper Worldwide Birding Adventures, which is based in South Africa, has a deep interest in the Secretarybird and other endemic species. The Secretarybird is one of many highlights of its 14-day birding and wildlife tour across East Africa to Cape Town.