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The Secretary Bird (Sagittarius serpentarius), is an endemic African raptor. Found primarily in open grassland and savannah, it is a common sight in the Kalahari Desert (such as the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park). Here some of the secretary bird facts that most fascinate us.

Secretary bird in the Kgalagadi Transfontier Park, South Africa

Secretary bird in the Kgalagadi Transfontier Park, South Africa

1) Pen Heads

Why is it called a Secretary Bird? The bird’s long, black crest feathers resemble the quill pens that secretaries in the 19th century kept tucked into their hair and behind their ears.

Black feathers resemble quill pens tucked into a secretary's hair

Black feathers resemble quill pens tucked into a Secretary’s hair

Another theory on why they are called Secretary Bird is that the name is a distortion of the French/Arabic “saqur et-air” meaning “hunting bird”.

Their scientific name has another origin. The Latin word sagittarius means “archer” and refers to its striding gait resembling a bow-hunter advancing to shoot. The species name serpentarius comes from the Latin serpentis referring to one of their favorite meals: snakes.

2) Snake Punchers

The Secretary Bird is one of very few birds of prey that hunts on foot. They can walk up to 20km per day while foraging. Their diet consists of snakes, spiders, small birds, small mammals and carrion.

Their hunting method is peculiar. When prey is located, the secretary bird stomps on it until it is subdued. If it is hunting a venomous snake, it leans backwards while punching the snake to avoid a possible strike. Small prey is swallowed whole while bigger prey is torn apart.

The video below shows how a pair of Secretary Birds hunt and forage.

3) Raptors on Stilts

Secretary Birds have the longest legs in the raptor world. They are three times as long as the legs of any other raptor. Their lower legs are covered in scales, just like in the other serpent-eagles, the Bateleur eagles. The scales on their legs protect them from snake bites.

4) Ground Hunter At Day, Tree Rooster At Night

Even though the Secretary Bird spends all day foraging on the ground, they spend their nights roosting in the tops of thorny acacia trees. The female will normally lay 1-3 eggs during wet season, but only one chick will survive and will fledge  after 2-3 months.

Two secretary birds roosting on a tree

A pair of Secretary Birds roosting on a tree in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa


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