Secretary birds stand on a pair of long, pink, scaly legs. At the end of these are webbed feet that have thick claws at the end. They are suited more to walking than grasping. Along the back half of the body and at the top of their legs are black feathers. The front half of their long body is covered with greyish-white feathers.
Along the long neck and on the top of the head are black feathers. Their face is coloured orange and surrounded by greyish-white feathers. Their beak is slightly curved and coloured grey. The eye varies from being yellow to dark brown.
They stand 1.2-1.5m (4.1-4.9ft) tall. Their wings measure 2.1m (6.9ft) across. They weigh between 2.3 and 4.3kg (5-9.4lb).
Secretary birds are carnivores. They will feed upon most small animals that live on the ground such as lizards, tortoises, snakes (including venomous species), hares, mongoose, small birds, bird eggs and carrion. Some reports suggest that this species can bring down a small gazelle.
When hunting this species stomps vegetation to flush out their prey. After it is in the open they will stomp it repeatedly with their feet. Once they catch their prey it is swallowed whole.
If hunting a snake they will use their feathers to defend themselves. This is a helpful defense as their feathers are hollow meaning the venom cannot affect them.
They are one of only two land-dwelling birds which hunt on their feet (the other being the caracara).
When a fire passes through an area they will scavenge the area to find animals which did not escape.
Wild 10-15 years
Captive – 19 years
— AD —
Range map for the secretary bird.
Africa is the native home of the secretary bird. Here they can found across most of the continent only being absent from the Saharan desert in the North along with the forested areas of West Africa, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
They live in open savannas, grasslands, semi-desert, scrub and lightly wooded areas. In these areas they will only live where the grass is less than 1m (3.3ft) tall so they can see their prey.
Secretary birds can breed year round but it peaks from August to March. Typically they will breed once a year but when food is plentiful they may breed twice. Courtship consists of a male and female soaring in wide circles before swooping downward and while in midair clasping their talons. On the ground they may perform a dance with their wings outstretched.
This pair will mate for life. They begin to work on a nest that may grow to be 2.4m (8ft) across. This is built from twigs, sticks, animal fur and feces, leaves and grasses. It may take up to 6 months for the nest to be complete. This is used and added to for many years until it is at risk of collapse.
The female lays one to three pale green eggs with each being laid two to three days apart. Most of the 42-46 day incubation period is undertaken by the female. Both parents will regurgitate food which they can feed to the chicks. Unlike other birds the secretary bird is able to successfully raise numerous chicks.
Chicks are born with downy feathers but within 10 days the bare patch on the face starts to become obvious. By three weeks old their crest feathers start to come through as do their eyelashes.
The chick is always accompanied by one parent for its first few weeks. The parents will begin by tearing up food for the chicks but in time they will begin to drop small food item into the nest which the chicks can practice hunting. Water is dribbled into the mouths of the chicks by the parents.
By six weeks old they look like miniature versions of the parents but have a yellow face patch. At 9 weeks they begin to exercise the wings but it is not until 12 weeks old that they will fledge. At this point they begin to hunt, kick and fly.
At 2 to 3 ½ months old they begin to live independently. The parents will sometimes allow them to share their territory at this point. Around two months after they become independent the parents will chase them away so that they can prepare to have some more chicks.
Sexually maturity is reached at around 3 to 4 years old.
Adult secretary birds have no predators. Eggs and chicks may be taken away by crows, ravens, hornbills, kites and eagle owls.
Secretary birds are diurnal. They do not wake till sometime after dawn when they descend from the trees where they have slept to start hunting. Their territory covers 50 square km (19 square mi) and most of this is covered each day. When it heats up during the middle of the day they will find a tree under which they can rest. They will also spend some time preening and dust bathing.
This species makes a croak which can be used during flight displays, fights, when greeting others and as a response to predators by chicks.
The secretary bird is also known as the Devil’s horse.
South Africa’s coat of arms features the secretary bird. They are also the national emblem of Sudan.
This species is featured on 65 stamps which have been produced by 30 different countries. These include countries where they are not found.
The scientific name of this species “Sagittarius serpentarius” means “the archer of snakes” as a result of their snake hunting skills.
Secretary birds have the longest legs of any birds relative to body size.
By Yoky (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons\
By Lip Kee Yap [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
BirdLife International 2016. Sagittarius serpentarius. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22696221A93549951. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T22696221A93549951.en. Downloaded on 21 April 2020.