With a penetrating gaze, the fierce, intense expression of the Secretarybird seems almost at odds with its long, lanky body and absurdly long legs. This bird’s odd proportions, unique taxonomic status and commanding presence make it a major target bird, especially for first-timers to Africa. Always a welcome sight, this emblematic and nomadic species of the African savanna stalks open country for insects, rodents, and reptiles. While snakes are a commonly cited prey item, in some areas, other prey (large insects, crabs, lizards) are more important, yet Secretarybirds are known to kill and eat cobras, puff adders and other venomous snakes.
The only species within the family Sagittariidae, the English name for this monotypic bird is commonly attributed to the spiky mane of black plumes sprouting from its head, which, to some, recall the quill pens used among English clerks in the 1800s. Disney fans may remember the 1971 classic Bedknobs and Broomsticks, in which King Leonidas’ scribe was a Secretarybird, which further enshrined this interpretation of the bird’s name into popular culture. Others, however, entertain that the name is a corruption of the Arabic word for “hunter-bird” – saqr-et-tair – in which the first part “saqr” is the same word from which Saker (as in the Saker Falcon) came to exist. Still, others believe the name is a corruption of the bird’s genus, Sagittarius, a word which also refers to the bird’s arrow-like head quills.
However this spectacular, strange beast received its name, it remains a sought-after species and one of Africa’s most iconic birds. From South Africa – where it is featured on the coat of arms, on up to Sudan – where it graces the national emblem, and throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, this terrestrial predator travels mostly on foot, striding about in search of prey, which it typically subdues through forceful stomping. Only occasionally taking to the air, as during courtship, it perches in Acacia trees mostly just at night to roost, or when nesting. With its dietary habits, it occupies a similar biological niche to the roadrunners of North America and the seriemas of South America. Historically a bird admired by humans for its pursuit of animals deemed pests, today healthy numbers exist in few parts of its range. Overall, the population has declined seriously, and it is now deemed Vulnerable by BirdLife International, for loss of habitat.
The magnificent Secretarybird is enjoyed on a variety of Rockjumper offerings in southern Africa, including, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, and of course also here on our home turf in South Africa. Join these adventures today, or join Rockjumper Wildlife Tours this June in Botswana, at a 10% discount!!