Class: Aves (Birds)
Body length: 4.1 to 4.9 feet (1.2 to 1.5 meters)
Wingspan: 6.9 feet (2.1 meters)
Weight: 5 to 9.4 pounds (2.3 to 4.3 kilograms)
Life span: 10 to 15 years in the wild; up to 19 years in captivity
Incubation: 42 to 46 days
Number of eggs laid: 1 to 3
Weight at hatch: 1.9 to 2.9 ounces (56 to 83 grams)
Age of maturity: unknown
Conservation status: lower risk
The secretary bird’s taxonomic name, Sagittarius serpentarius, means “the archer of snakes.” It is famous for its snake-hunting abilities.
Two countries use the secretary bird on their national coat of arms: Sudan and South Africa.
The secretary bird is also known as the long-legged marching eagle for the way it walks through the grass while hunting.
In recent years, the San Diego Zoo's Safari Park has been one of only two North American zoos to have successfully raised this species.
Birds: Secretary Bird
Thanks, I'd rather walk
Secretary birds are distantly related to buzzards, vultures, harriers, and kites. But unlike their raptor cousins, secretary birds spend most of their time on the ground. Standing over four feet tall, they cruise through the tall grass on long legs while looking for a bite to eat. Secretary birds prefer savannas and open grasslands where they can easily see while strolling. But can they fly? Of course! They may spend their days on the ground, but secretary birds are quite good fliers and will nest and roost high up in acacia trees at night. In flight, their long legs trail behind them in the air. Native to Africa, they are found south of the Sahara Desert.
The secretary bird’s English name was once thought to come from the 1800s when Europeans first spotted these birds. Back then, male secretaries wore gray tailcoats and dark knee-length pants. They also used goose-quill pens that they carried behind their ears. This long-legged bird shares many of these same physical features: long, dark quills at the back of the head, long, gray wing and tail feathers that resemble a tailcoat, and black feathers that go midway down the legs like short pants. It's fun to imagine how the two "secretaries" compare, but it is now believed that the name is from the Arabic saqr-et-tair, or “hunter bird.”
Off to work
A few hours after dawn, the secretary bird will drop down to the ground from its nighttime roost to start its daily hunt. Pairs of secretary birds keep track of what's happening in their territories, which can be up to 19 square miles (50 square kilometers) in size. They are known to cover more than 20 miles (32 kilometers) in a day of hunting. Secretary birds search for food throughout the day—resting in the shade of a tree during the hottest part of the day—and return to their roosts just before sunset.
Long-legged savanna stalkers
Secretary birds and caracaras are the only terrestrial birds of prey, hunting for their food on foot. Adults are often seen working in loose pairs, or even small family groups, stalking through long grass in search of small mammals, reptiles, birds, and large insects. They are well known for their ability to catch and kill snakes of all sorts, even venomous ones! Secretary birds are clever enough to take advantage of recent fires, scavenging throughout the burn site for small animals that were unable to escape the blaze.
These clever birds use two different hunting techniques. They catch prey by chasing it down and then they either strike it with their bill or stomp on it until the prey is dead or stunned enough for the bird to swallow. When attacking prey, the birds spread both wings and raise the feathered crest at the back of the head. Some studies suggest that dinosaur-like “terror birds” that wandered the Earth five million years ago may well have used this same attack strategy! A venomous snake might try to bite these flapping feathers, but they serve as safe distractions or targets, since a bite to a hollow feather wouldn’t hurt the bird at all! Secretary birds can't pick up food items with their feet, so food is either eaten right away or carried away in the beak.
Starting a family
Courtship for secretary birds takes place at any time of year, depending on how much food is available. Both birds soar in wide circles and perform swoops and downward plunges, sometimes clasping talons in midair. Normally quiet, the "lovebirds" may make croaking sounds. The monogamous pair works together to build a large nest reaching up to 8 feet (2.4 meters) across. The nest is built of twigs, sticks, animal fur and dung, leaves, and grasses. The busy couple will work on and visit the nest for up to six months; pairs often use the same nest for many years.
One to three pale green eggs are laid every two to three days and the female does most of the incubation duties. The eggs hatch in the order they were laid, a few days apart. Both parents feed regurgitated and liquefied insects and small animals directly to the youngsters. Unlike other birds of prey, secretary bird parents often raise more than one baby successfully.
In the beginning, the parents tear up small pieces of meat for the chicks to eat. At about 40 days old, the down-covered babies learn to eat small mammal and reptile parts that the parents drop directly into the nest. By 60 days old, the youngsters are fully feathered and start to flap their wings. From 65 to 80 days old the young secretary birds fledge. Fledging for a secretary bird usually means a somewhat controlled fall out of the nest with lots of wing flapping until the youngster hits the ground. Parents then teach their offspring how to hunt, kick, and fly; the youngsters wander off on their own soon after.
We still have much to learn about these amazing birds and how they raise their young. At this time, the secretary bird is common over much of its range and is protected in many African countries. However, habitat loss and deforestation could affect its future. Crows and kites often attack secretary bird nestlings, which are easy targets in their treetop nests. In 1968, the species was protected under the Africa Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Its popularity among Africans may help protect the secretary bird in the future, while zoos such as the San Diego Zoo Safari Park do our part to increase awareness about the importance of habitat protection.