The Secretary bird, belonging to genus Sagittarius, is a large bird of prey. This species is mostly terrestrial. They are endemic to Africa, found primarily in savannahs and grasslands. Even though it is a member of order Accipitriformes (like a lot of diurnal raptors, such as harriers, vultures, hawks and kites), yet they belong to a new family Sagittariidae. Its common name is believed to have come from the crest of quill-like feathers, offering an appearance of a secretary with quill pens places in their ear. However, a recent conjecture suggests that the term ‘secretary’ comes from a French misrepresentation of Arabic “saqr-et-tair” that means “hunter-bird”.
Species: S. Serpentarius
The scientific name for Secretary bird is Sagittarius serpentarius.
Adult specimens stand between 2.9 to 3.9 feet tall, and they weigh around 2.3 to 4.3 kilograms depending on age. Males tend to be a little larger compared to females. Male’s wingspan is around 4.1 to 4.4 feet, while the female’s wingspan is 3.9 to 4.3 feet. The structure of their body resembles that of an Eagle. Their plumage is usually grey with scattered white feathers. They have black-tipped plumage on the back of its head. The area around the eyes is bright red or orange in color. Their head is quite small compared to its body. Their bill is greyish-white. They have long, black, prominent eyelashes. The plumage of the tibial parts of the legs is black. They have long, bare, pinkish legs; and its stubby toes ends with unsharpened claws. They have a long tail, especially the rectrices. The appearance of the juvenile is a little different from the adults. The area around their eyes is yellow rather than red or orange. They also have black colouration on their wing shoulder feathers’ tips.
They mostly prefer to inhabit grasslands and savannahs. However, at times, they are also found in scrub areas, lightly wooded regions or semi-desert regions. In grasslands, they prefer places where the height of the grass is around a meter or so. The scattered population can also be seen near agricultural fields. The can live in areas that are around 3000 meters from the sea level. They avoid heavily wooded areas or arid, true deserts.
They are found almost all across Africa (including south of Sahara) apart from the desert along the Namib coast, the wooded region around the equator in West Africa. They are not found in Ghana, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, southern regions of Guinea, and the sub-Saharan countries of Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Secretary birds are not social in general, but at times, they can be seen hunting in small groups. They keep in touch with each other by hooting. This species is territorial and one individual’s range can be up to 40 or 50 square kilometres. They can cover up to twenty miles in a single day just by walking. They are a quite skilled flier, but they spent most of their time on the ground. They take a long run before taking off to the air.
This species is monogamous. Courtship display includes guttural croaking and undulating flight patterns. At times, both male and female get involved in ground displays, such as chasing each other. Both male and female call on to the nest site at least six months before egg laying takes place. Nests are mostly made with sticks, and they can be placed at a height of around 20 feet. Most of the times, copulation takes place on the ground, but they can also mate in Acacia trees. Females lay 2 to 3 pale green, oval, rough textured eggs over a period of two or three days. Female incubates the eggs for 45 to 50 days. Juveniles are covered with downy plumage. Parents feed them with regorge food. The young ones become capable of flapping wings in 60 days time and they can fledge when they are about 80 days old. The young birds stay around the breeding nest for another 80 to 105 days. During this time, they go to hunting expeditions with their parents.
This species is a diurnal carnivorous. They are well-known for their ability to prey on snakes on the African savannahs.
They are mostly seen preying upon Cobras and Adders. They also feed on bird eggs, rodents, amphibians and lizards. They consume small animals as a whole, while the larger preys are stumped upon till death before being fed.
In the wild, they can live for 10 to 15 years, while in captivity they can live as long as 19 years.
They mostly stay silent. At times, they emit a trisyllabic, deep, croaking sound that is audible from a long distance. During courtship, they produce a drawn-out snarl along with ground displays. They produce a soft version of their primary call when they feed their young ones. A secondary whistle is also given from time to time. Young ones emit a loud, long ‘chok-a-cook-a’ note.
Eggs and juveniles are vulnerable to predation. Their common predators include kites, owls, hornbills, ravens and crows among others. Adults are not known to subject to predation.
Habitat loss and deforestation are the main threats to their survival. Rising CO2 levels are also bringing negative impacts to its natural habitats.
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species has kept this species in the ‘Vulnerable’ category. In 1968, Secretary bird was declared as protected species by the Africa Convention of Nature and Natural Resources.
Its genus name Sagittarius comes from Latin that means ‘archer’ supposedly referring to the ‘quills’ of the bird that looks like a quiver of arrows. The species name ‘serpentarius’ suggests to its hunting skills.
This bird is common on African postage stamps. There are more than hundred different types of stamps featuring this bird. Some of these stamp-issuing entities are the likes of United Nations, Maldives and Manama, where the bird is not found.
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