Secretarybird

Table of Contents

Secretarybird

The secretarybird, scientifically known as Sagittarius serpentarius, is a sizable terrestrial bird of prey primarily native to Africa. It predominantly inhabits the open grasslands and savannas found in the sub-Saharan region. This distinctive bird was first formally described by John Frederick Miller in 1779. Despite belonging to the order Accipitriformes, which encompasses various diurnal birds of prey like hawks, kites, vultures, and harriers, the secretarybird occupies its own unique family, Sagittariidae.

The secretarybird is immediately recognizable due to its imposing stature. It features an eagle-like body perched upon crane-like legs, granting it an impressive height of up to 1.3 meters (4 feet 3 inches). Both sexes share a similar appearance characterized by a featherless red-orange face, predominantly gray plumage, a flattened dark crest, and black flight feathers and thighs.

Breeding among secretarybirds can occur throughout the year, although it tends to be more common late in the dry season. These birds construct their nests atop thorny trees, and a typical clutch consists of one to three eggs. All three offspring can successfully mature into fledglings in years of abundant food resources. The secretarybird employs a ground-based hunting strategy, often using its powerful stomping technique to immobilize prey. Its diet primarily comprises insects and small vertebrates.

Despite inhabiting a widespread range, localized surveys indicate a sharp decline in the overall population, primarily attributed to habitat degradation. Consequently, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has classified the secretarybird as an endangered species. Notably, this bird holds symbolic significance, appearing on the coats of arms of Sudan and South Africa.

In 1779, John Frederick Miller, an English illustrator, featured a colored illustration of the secretarybird in his work “Icones animalium et plantarum” and coined its scientific name as Falco Serpentarius. Serpentarius holds the distinction of being the oldest published specific name, granting it a taxonomic priority.

Secretarybird

Secretarybird
Secretarybird in the Maasai Mara

Conservation Status

Domain

Kingdom

Phylum

Order

Family

Genus

Species

Binomial name

 

Clade

Endangered (IUCN 3.1)

 Eukaryota

 Animalia

 Chordata

Accipitriformes

 Sagittariidae

Sagittarius (Hermann, 1783)

S. Serpentarius

Sagittarius serpentarius (J. F. Miller, 1779)

  • Dinosauria
  • Saurischia
  • Theropoda
  • Available

Classification

In 1769, the Dutch naturalist Arnout Vosmaer documented the secretarybird based on a live specimen sent from the Cape of Good Hope to Holland by a Dutch East India Company official two years prior. Vosmaer proposed that Dutch settlers referred to the species as “sagittarius” due to its gait resembling that of an archer. Additionally, he mentioned that farmers who had domesticated these birds for pest control around their homesteads called them “secretarius.” Vosmaer suggested that “secretarius” might be a corruption of “sagittarius.” Ian Glenn of the University of the Free State posits that Vosmaer’s “sagittarius” is more likely a misheard or mis-transcribed form of “secretarius,” rather than the other way around.

In 1779, the English illustrator John Frederick Miller included a colored illustration of the secretarybird in his work “Icones animalium et plantarum” and coined the scientific name Falco serpentarius. As the oldest published specific name, serpentarius holds precedence over later scientific names. In 1783, the French naturalist Johann Hermann assigned the species to its own genus, Sagittarius, in his “Tabula affinitatum animalium.” The generic name “Sagittarius” is derived from the Latin word for “archer,” while the specific epithet “serpentarius” comes from the Latin “serpens,” meaning “serpent” or “snake.” In 1796, a second edition of Miller’s plates was published as “Cimelia physica,” featuring added text by the English naturalist George Shaw, who named it Vultur serpentarius. In 1798, the French naturalist Georges Cuvier established the genus “Serpentarius,” and in 1811, the German naturalist Johann Karl Wilhelm Illiger introduced the genus “Gypogeranus” from the Ancient Greek words “gyps” meaning “vulture” and “geranos” meaning “crane.”

In 1835, the Irish naturalist William Ogilby proposed three species of secretarybird at a meeting of the Zoological Society of London. He differentiated those from Senegambia as having broader crest feathers compared to those from South Africa. He also reported a distinct species from the Philippines, citing Pierre Sonnerat’s “Voyage à la Nouvelle-Guinée.” However, there is no additional evidence supporting the existence of this taxon. Despite its extensive range, the secretarybird is typically considered monotypic, with no recognized subspecies.

The evolutionary relationship between the secretarybird and other raptors has long been a puzzle for ornithologists. Previously, the species was placed in its own family, Sagittariidae, within the order Falconiformes. However, a comprehensive molecular phylogenetic study published in 2008 indicated that the secretarybird is the sister taxon to a clade containing ospreys in the family Pandionidae and kites, hawks, and eagles in the family Accipitridae. This same study found that falcons in the order Falconiformes were only distantly related to other diurnal birds of prey. Consequently, the families Cathartidae, Sagittariidae, Pandionidae, and Accipitridae were moved from Falconiformes to the reinstated order Accipitriformes. A later molecular phylogenetic study in 2015 confirmed these relationships.

The earliest fossils associated with the Sagittariidae family belong to two species of the genus Pelargopappus. These species, dating from the Oligocene and Miocene, respectively, were discovered in France. Interestingly, the feet of these fossils bear more resemblance to those of the Accipitridae family. It is suggested that these characteristics represent primitive features within the family. Despite their age, these two species are not believed to be ancestral to the secretarybird. Although Apatosagittarius, an extinct raptor, shares strong convergent characteristics with the modern secretarybird, it is considered a member of the Accipitridae family.

The International Ornithologists’ Union has designated “secretarybird” as the official common name for the species. In 1780, the French polymath Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, proposed that the name “secretary” was chosen because of the bird’s long quill-like feathers at the top of its neck, resembling a quill pen behind the ear of an ancient scribe. In 1977, C. Hilary Fry of Aberdeen University suggested that “secretary” could be derived from the French “secrétaire,” possibly a corruption of the Arabic “صقر الطير saqr et-tair,” meaning either “hawk of the semi-desert” or “hawk that flies.” Glenn, however, dismisses this etymology, arguing that there is no evidence of the name passing through French, and instead supports Buffon’s etymology, which suggests that the word originates from the Dutch “secretaris,” used by South African settlers.

Distribution shown in green
Geographic distribution of the secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius).
The secretarybird has distinctive black feathers protruding from behind its head
The secretarybird has distinctive black feathers protruding from behind its head
A Pair Image
A Pair Image
Illustration of chick, from Faune de la Sénégambie (1883) by Alphonse Trémeau de Rochebrune
Illustration of chick, from Faune de la Sénégambie (1883) by Alphonse Trémeau de Rochebrune

Description

The secretarybird is instantly recognizable due to its imposing size, featuring an eagle-like head and body perched upon crane-like legs. It stands at an impressive height of approximately 1.3 meters (4 feet 3 inches). Its length falls within the range of 1.1 to 1.5 meters (3 feet 7 inches to 4 feet 11 inches), with a wingspan spanning from 1.9 to 2.1 meters (6 feet 3 inches to 6 feet 11 inches). In terms of weight, it ranges from 3.74 to 4.27 kilograms (8.2 to 9.4 pounds), with an average weight of 4.05 kilograms (8.9 pounds). The tarsus, measuring around 31 centimeters (12 inches), and the tail, which varies from 57 to 85 centimeters (22 to 33 inches) in length, contribute to its exceptional height and length compared to other raptor species. Notably, the neck is relatively short, only able to be lowered down to the intertarsal joint, requiring the bird to stoop when reaching the ground.

During flight, two elongated central feathers of the tail extend beyond the feet, and the neck elongates similar to a stork’s. The plumage on the crown, upperparts, and the lesser and median wing coverts is characterized by a blue-grey hue, while the underparts and underwing coverts display lighter grey to grey-white coloring. A crest composed of long black feathers arises from the nape. The scapulars, primary and secondary flight feathers, rump, and thighs are black, whereas the uppertail coverts are white, often adorned with black barring in some individuals. The tail exhibits a wedge-shaped configuration with white tips, marbled grey and black coloring near the base, and two broad black bands, one at the base and the other at the tip.

Both sexes share similar features, although the male secretarybird typically possesses longer tail feathers, more head plumes, a shorter head, and a greater extent of blue-grey plumage. Adult secretarybirds showcase a featherless red-orange face, pale brown irises, and a yellow cere. Their legs and feet exhibit a pinkish-grey hue, with the upper legs adorned in black feathers. The toes are relatively short, accounting for approximately 20% of the length of an eagle’s toes of the same size, and they are sturdy, preventing the bird from grasping objects with its feet. The rear toe is small, and the three forward-facing toes are connected at the base by a small web. In contrast, immature birds feature yellow bare skin on their faces rather than orange, possess more brownish plumage, shorter tail feathers, and greyish irises instead of brown.

While adults are typically silent, they can emit a deep guttural croaking sound during nuptial displays or at nests. Secretarybirds produce this sound when greeting their mates, displaying threats, or engaging in conflicts with other birds, often tilting their heads backward simultaneously. When alarmed, secretarybirds may release a high-pitched croak. Mated pairs at the nest communicate through soft clucking or whistling calls, and chicks emit a sharp, repeated sound resembling “chee-uk-chee-uk-chee-uk” during their initial 30 days of life.

Distribution and Accommodation

The secretarybird is endemic to sub-Saharan Africa and is generally non-migratory, though it may be locally nomadic as it follows rainfall and the resulting abundance of prey. Its range extends from Senegal to Somalia and south to Western Cape, South Africa.

The species is also found at a variety of elevations, from the coastal plains to the highlands. The secretarybird prefers open grasslands, savannas, and shrubland (Karoo) rather than forests and dense shrubbery that may impede its cursorial existence. More specifically, it prefers areas with grass under 0.5 m (1 ft 8 in) high and avoids those with grass over 1 m (3 ft 3 in) high. It is rarer in grasslands in northern parts of its range that otherwise appear similar to areas in southern Africa where it is abundant, suggesting it may avoid hotter regions. It also avoids deserts.

Behaviour and Ecology

Secretarybirds are typically solitary birds, except for pairs and their offspring. They commonly choose trees from the Acacia or Balanites genera for roosting, and in South Africa, they may even roost in introduced pine trees. Their daily routine typically begins 1 to 2 hours after dawn, often preceded by a period of preening. Mated pairs often roost together but may engage in separate foraging activities while keeping each other in sight. These birds move at a pace of 2.5 to 3 kilometers per hour (1.6 to 1.9 miles per hour), taking an average of 120 steps per minute. After spending a significant portion of the day on the ground, secretarybirds return to their roosting spots at dusk, often moving downwind before taking flight upwind. Solitary encounters with individual birds, especially unattached males, are common, with their territories typically located in less favorable areas. Conversely, larger groups of up to 50 individuals may congregate in areas with localized resources, such as a waterhole in arid regions or during an irruption of rodents or locusts fleeing a fire.

When secretarybirds soar, they splay their primary feathers to manage turbulence effectively. Their wings are capable of flapping, although this occurs in a slow and laborious manner, necessitating updrafts to sustain flight; otherwise, they may become fatigued. In the heat of the day, secretarybirds utilize thermals to ascend to altitudes of up to 3,800 meters (12,500 feet) above the ground.

The lifespan of secretarybirds in the wild is estimated to be between 10 to 15 years. The oldest known individual, confirmed through banding, was 5 years old and was banded as a nestling on July 23, 2011, in Bloemfontein. It was later recovered 440 kilometers (270 miles) away in Mpumalanga on June 7, 2016. In captivity, secretarybirds can live up to 19 years.

Like all birds, secretarybirds have blood parasites known as haematozoans. These parasites include Leucocytozoon beaurepairei Dias 1954, which has been recorded in Mozambique. Additionally, wild secretarybirds from Tanzania have been found to carry Hepatozoon ellisgreineri, a unique genus of avian haematozoa that matures within granulocytes, primarily neutrophils. Ectoparasites known to affect secretarybirds include the lice species Neocolpocephalum cucullare (Giebel) and Falcolipeurus secretarius (Giebel).

Breeding

Secretarybirds are known to form monogamous pairs and establish and defend a spacious territory that can encompass around 50 square kilometers (19 square miles). They have the ability to breed at any time throughout the year, although they tend to do so more frequently during the late dry season. During their courtship, they engage in a nuptial display characterized by soaring high in the sky with undulating flight patterns and emitting guttural croaking calls. Both males and females participate in a ground display by playfully chasing each other with their wings raised and extended backward. This same behavior is also employed in defending their territory. Mating occurs either on the ground or in trees.

The nest is a joint effort, constructed by both sexes, and typically situated at the top of a densely thorny tree, often of the Acacia variety. It is usually positioned at a height ranging from 2.5 to 13 meters (8 to 40 feet) above the ground. The nest takes the form of a relatively flat platform composed of sticks, measuring approximately 1.0 to 1.5 meters (3 to 5 feet) in diameter with a depth of 30 to 50 centimeters (12 to 20 inches). The shallow depression within the nest is lined with grass and occasionally includes pieces of dung.

Eggs are laid at intervals of 2 to 3 days until a clutch of 1 to 3 eggs is complete. These elongated eggs display a chalky bluish-green or white coloration and have an average size of 78 millimeters by 57 millimeters (3.1 inches by 2.2 inches), weighing about 130 grams (4.6 ounces). Both parents partake in incubating the eggs, commencing immediately upon the laying of the first egg. Typically, it is the female that remains on the nest during the night. Upon the returning of the incubating parent, a display of bowing and head bobbing occurs, with the tail held upright and feathers fanned out, along with puffed-out chest feathers.

The eggs hatch after approximately 45 days, with intervals of 2 to 3 days between hatching. Both parents actively participate in feeding the young. Food is regurgitated onto the nest floor by the adults, after which they pick up the items and pass them to the chicks. For the initial 2 to 3 weeks following hatching, the parents take turns staying with the young at the nest. Despite differences in size due to asynchronous hatching, there is minimal sibling aggression observed. Under favorable conditions, all chicks from a clutch of three eggs will fledge. However, if food becomes scarce, one or more chicks may succumb to starvation. The young are susceptible to predation by crows, ravens, hornbills, and large owls.

Newly hatched chicks are covered in grey-white down, which darkens to a darker grey after two weeks. Their facial skin and legs are bare and yellow. Crest feathers start to appear at 21 days, followed by the emergence of flight feathers at 28 days. By 40 days, they can stand up and feed independently, although parental feeding continues. At 60 days, fully-feathered juveniles begin to flap their wings. Their weight progression during this period changes from 56 grams (2.0 ounces) at hatching, to 500 grams (18 ounces) at 20 days, 1.1 kilograms (2.4 pounds) at 30 days, 1.7 kilograms (3.7 pounds) at 40 days, 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) at 50 days, 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds) at 60 days, and 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds) at 70 days. The timing of their departure from the nest can vary, typically occurring between 65 and 106 days of age, with the most common range being between 75 and 80 days of age. Fledging is accomplished through either jumping out of the nest or employing a semi-controlled glide to the ground.

Juveniles remain within their natal range until they disperse, typically between 4 and 7 months of age. While the exact age at which they begin breeding is uncertain, there is a recorded instance of a male bird successfully breeding at the young age of 2 years and 9 months, which is relatively early for a large raptor.

Food and Feeding

In contrast to the typical behavior of most birds of prey, the secretarybird is predominantly terrestrial and conducts its hunting pursuits on foot. These birds, often seen in pairs or loose familial groups, traverse their habitat with long, purposeful strides while stalking their prey. Their diet comprises a diverse range of prey items, including insects such as locusts, various grasshoppers, wasps, and beetles. However, their primary source of sustenance consists of small vertebrates. This category encompasses rodents, frogs, lizards, small tortoises, and various avian species like warblers, larks, doves, small hornbills, and even domestic chickens. On occasion, secretarybirds may also target larger mammals, including hedgehogs, mongooses, small felids such as cheetah cubs, striped polecats, young gazelles, and both young and mature hares. While snakes are occasionally part of their diet, they are not as significant as previously believed, and secretarybirds regularly prey on venomous species like adders and cobras. It is important to note that secretarybirds do not scavenge carrion, though they may consume animals that have perished in grass or bushfires.

When hunting, secretarybirds often flush their prey from tall grass by stomping on the vegetation surrounding it. During the pursuit, their crest feathers may elevate, potentially serving to intimidate the prey or provide shade for their face. The actual kill is executed through swift foot strikes, with the bird chasing after its prey with wings outstretched. Only in the case of small prey, such as wasps, will the secretarybird use its bill to directly capture them. Some reports suggest that when capturing snakes, these birds may take flight with their prey and then release them to their demise, although this behavior has not been definitively verified. Even when dealing with larger prey, secretarybirds typically consume their food whole, utilizing their wide gape. Occasionally, akin to other raptors, they will secure a food item with their feet while tearing it apart with their bill.

Undigestible food is regurgitated in the form of pellets, measuring 40–45 millimeters (1.6–1.8 inches) in diameter and 30–100 millimeters (1.2–3.9 inches) in length. These pellets are usually deposited on the ground, often in proximity to their roosting or nesting areas. The digestive system of the secretarybird differs from that of larger African birds with more varied diets, such as the kori bustard. Their foregut is specialized for the consumption of substantial quantities of meat, rendering the mechanical breakdown of food largely unnecessary. The crop is distensible, and the gizzard lacks muscularity, similar to other carnivorous birds. Additionally, the large intestine possesses a pair of vestigial ceca, as fermentative digestion of plant material is not required.

Secretarybirds exhibit a unique hunting technique characterized by stomping their prey until it is incapacitated or killed. This method is often employed when hunting lizards or snakes. An interesting study involving an adult male secretarybird trained to strike at a rubber snake on a force plate revealed that these birds can deliver strikes with a force equivalent to five times their own body weight, with a contact period lasting a mere 10–15 milliseconds. This brief contact duration suggests that secretarybirds rely on exceptional visual targeting to precisely locate the prey’s head. Although the specifics of their visual field remain relatively unknown, it is presumed to be extensive, forward-facing, and binocular. Notably, secretarybirds possess unusually long legs, nearly twice the length of those of other ground birds of similar body mass. These long limbs are thought to be an adaptation for their distinctive stomping and striking hunting strategy, although they may reduce the bird’s running efficiency. Ecophysiologist Steve Portugal and his colleagues have even proposed that the now-extinct Phorusrhacidae, commonly known as terror birds, may have employed a similar hunting technique to secretarybirds due to their anatomical similarities, despite being distantly related.

Secretarybirds seldom encounter other predators, with the exception of tawny eagles, which occasionally pilfer their kills. Typically, eagles target larger prey items and may attempt to seize secretarybird kills, either individually or in pairs. Nevertheless, secretarybird pairs can sometimes succeed in repelling these eagles, and in certain instances, they might even overpower them, forcing the eagles to the ground.

Relationship With Humans

Cultural Significance.

The secretarybird has a historical presence that dates back to ancient times. An ivory knife handle discovered in Upper Egypt’s Abu Zaidan region, attributed to the Naqada III culture around 3,200 BC, features depictions of this magnificent bird. Such archaeological finds, including similar knife handles, suggest that the secretarybird’s historical range may have extended farther north along the Nile.

Throughout its history in Africa, the secretarybird has been esteemed for its remarkable appearance and its valuable role in pest and snake control. As a result, it was often left undisturbed, though these traditional practices are changing with the passage of time. This iconic bird holds a significant place on the coat of arms of South Africa, an emblem adopted in the year 2000. With its wings extended, it symbolizes growth, and its reputation as a snake hunter represents its role as a protector of the South African state against its adversaries.

The secretarybird also appears on Sudan’s emblem, a design implemented in 1969. It is featured on the Sudanese presidential flag and presidential seal. Across the African continent, this magnificent bird has frequently graced postage stamps, with over a hundred stamps hailing from 37 issuers. Surprisingly, it has appeared on stamps issued by regions such as Ajman, Manama, and the Maldives, where the bird does not naturally occur, as well as on stamps from international organizations like the United Nations.

Various African cultures have their own names and beliefs associated with the secretarybird. Among the Maasai people, it is known as “ol-enbai nabo,” signifying “one arrow,” a reference to its distinctive crest feathers. Traditional medicine practices among these communities have involved using different parts of the bird for various remedies. For example, its feathers were burned, and the smoke inhaled to treat epilepsy, its eggs were consumed with tea for headache relief, and its fat was boiled and consumed for the health of children or livestock.

In Xhosa culture, the secretarybird is referred to as “inxhanxhosi,” and it is attributed with great intelligence in their folklore. The Zulus have their own name for the bird, “intungunono.”

German biologist Ragnar Kinzelbach proposed in 2008 that the secretarybird may have been documented in the 13th-century work “De arte venandi cum avibus” by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Referred to as “bistarda deserti,” it was mistaken for a bustard in the text. Frederick likely acquired knowledge of the bird from sources in Egypt. Furthermore, in 1558, the 16th-century French priest and traveler André Thevet described a mysterious bird in his writings, which Kinzelbach suggests may have been a reference to the secretarybird.

Risks and Protection

In 1968, the secretarybird gained protection status under the African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. However, the conservation status of this species has raised concerns. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classified the secretarybird as vulnerable in 2016 and escalated its status to endangered in 2020. This change reflects a recent and rapid decline in secretarybird populations across its entire range.

Despite its widespread distribution, the secretarybird is thinly scattered throughout its habitat. Estimates in 2016 placed its population in a range between 6,700 and 67,000 individuals. Long-term monitoring conducted in South Africa from 1987 to 2013 revealed population declines even in protected areas like Kruger National Park. These declines have been attributed to factors such as bush encroachment, which increases the coverage of tall vegetation and results in the loss of the open habitats that the secretarybird prefers.

The secretarybird faces several threats as a species. The primary challenges include habitat loss due to fragmentation caused by roads and development, as well as overgrazing of grasslands by livestock. While some adaptation to modified environments has been observed, the overall trend remains one of population decline.

In Prison

The initial successful breeding of a secretarybird in a controlled environment took place in 1986 at the Oklahoma City Zoo. In contrast to their natural nesting behavior in trees, the captive secretarybirds at the zoo constructed their nests on the ground. This exposed their eggs to potential predation by local wild mammals. To ensure the safety of the eggs, the zoo personnel decided to remove them from the nest whenever they were laid. Subsequently, the eggs were incubated and hatched in a more secure location.

Additionally, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park has also achieved success in breeding and raising secretarybirds in captivity.

Synonyms

  • Falco serpentarius (J. F. Miller)
  • Otis serpentarius (Scopoli, 1786)
  • Vultur serpentarius (Latham, 1790)
  • Vultur secretarius (Shaw, 1796)
  • Secretarius reptilivorus (Daudin, 1806)
  • Serpentarius africanus (Shaw, 1809)
  • Gypogeranus serpentarius (Illiger, 1811)
  • Ophiotheres cristatus (Vieillot, 1819)
  • Gypogeranus reptilivorus (Ranzani, 1823)
  • Gypogeranus africanus (Stephens, 1826)
  • Serpentarius cristatus (R. Lesson, 1831)
  • Gypogeranus capensis (Ogilby, 1835)
  • Gypogeranus philippensis (Ogilby, 1835)
  • Gypogeranus gambiensis (Ogilby, 1835)
  • Serpentarius reptilivorus (Gray, 1840)
  • Serpentarius secretarius (Gray, 1848)
  • Sagittarius secretarius (Strickland, 1855)
  • Serpentarius orientalis (J. Verreaux, 1856)
  • Astur secretarius (Schlegel, 1862)

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