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Kingdom – Animalia
Phylum – Chordata
Subphylum – Vertibrata
Class – Aves
Order – Accipitriformes
Family – Sagittaridae
Genus – Sagittarius
Species – Serpentarius
The common name Secretarybird is said to derive from the bird’s crest of long feathers which look like the long quill pens that the olden day secretaries had tucked behind their ears or in their wigs.
The Secretary bird genus name is Sagittarius which is Latin for ‘archer’. This name has probably been given in reference to the birds amazing skills as a hunter of reptiles. Another hypothesis states that the ‘quills’ (or crest) represents an archers quiver that he carries on his back containing his arrows.
The birds specific name serpentarius, from ‘serpent’ (or snake), refers to its favorite food type which is reptiles.
The Secretarybird is easily distinguished from other raptors and cranes by its grey plumage, the orange facial skin with raptor-like beak and the characteristic stealthy stride it takes as it moves through the grass in search of prey. The shape of the body is very similar to that of an eagle but walks on the legs of a stork or crane. The sexes are alike with the males having a slightly longer crest and tail than the female. A full grown Secretarybird can reach a mass of 4kg (max 4.5) and a reach an astonishing 1.4 meters tall with a wingspan of 191-220cm. In flight one would think that this bird could be confused with the similar coloured Grey Crowned Crane, but it can easily be distinguished due to its barred tail feathers. With a tail of around 75cm long the Secretarybird is the record holder for the longest tail in Africa.
The juveniles of this species have a browner plumage, yellow face and a shorter tail than the adults of the species.
In Africa south of the Sahara except for forested areas. Distributed throughout Southern Africa.
These birds are usually uncommon but can be locally fairly-common. It is listed as vulnerable. These birds are usually not sedentary and are nomadic especially in the western regions. They are usually found in pairs or sometimes solitary.
Secretarybirds are non-migratory, but have been recorded to follow food sources, and are endemic to Sub-Saharan Africa, inhabiting a variety of elevations from highlands down to coastal plains. They prefer open savannas and grasslands, avoiding forests and dense woodlands.
Breeding & Rearing:
The Secretarybird is monogamous, living in closely knitted pairs that never stray too far from one another. The mating display includes a ground display where male and female chase each other with wings held up and back (much like the way they chase prey) or an aerial display of soaring high with an undulating flight pattern coupled with guttural croaking. Mating happens on the ground or on an acacia tree. Large flat nests made of sticks are built on top of flat acacia trees (height: 5-7m) and nests will be visited for almost half a year before the eggs are laid.
Incubation of the (2-3) eggs takes about 45 days and usually only 2 of the eggs are fertilized. In cases of all three eggs hatching the last to hatch usually dies of starvation due to being weaker than the two older chicks. After 40 days the chicks can eat autonomously but parents will still have to deliver the food. After about two months the chicks begin to flap their wings and within the next three weeks the chicks are able to fledge. After this the chicks join parents on hunts where they learn how to hunt themselves and soon after are considered independent.
Threats & Conservation:
The young can fall victim to larger carnivorous birds such as crows, ravens, hornbills, large owls and kites as they are extremely vulnerable in their tree top nests (usually on acacias). Loss of habitat and deforestation is a serious threat to the population as a whole, but threats such as Collisions with power lines is also taking its toll. This is a protected species and its numbers are in constant decline in South Africa. It is listed as Vulnerable.
The Secretarybird has always been admired by the African people due to its striking appearance and great ally against pests such as snakes and rodents. The Secretarybird is also known as the Devil Horse by many African cultures.
The Secretarybird is the national emblem of Sudan and is also on the South African coat of arms, representing vigilance and military might. The Secretarybird also appears on many postage stamps in over 30 countries in Africa.