Colours of Wildlife: The Secretary Bird

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Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours ... but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

A secretary bird

The Secretary Bird: Hunter in the Grass

The Secretary bird is yet another highly unique bird species of Africa. It is handsome and elegant in appearance, with black and grey plumage and a bare yellow to orange-red face. It has long, narrow central tail feathers, and long, thin black plumes at the back of the head. Some people explain its name saying that these look like the quill pens secretaries held behind their ears, in the old days. Others say the name comes from the Arabic saqr-et-tair, meaning 'hunter bird'. Its scientific name is Sagittarius serpentarius. Sagittarius also sounds a bit like 'Secretary', but it means 'archer' ... in this case, the quills on the head might have suggested arrows. The species' name serpentarius alludes to this bird's killing snakes. This, too, is somewhat inaccurate: secretary birds catch mostly insects and rodents. But they can and do catch snakes, as well.

Reaching 1.2 m (4 ft) in height and a bit more than that in length, the secretary bird is the tallest of all the birds of prey, as well as the longest. It is slender of build, though, reaching a bit over 3 kg, and is outweighed by several large eagle and vulture species.

This species has puzzled scientists for long. It looks a bit like eagles, vultures and falcons, but differs from them in overall body shape and also habits. It is the only large raptor that is terrestrial – i.e. it lives mainly on the ground, walking rather than flying. From a distance it looks much like a crane. For a time it was thought it might be closer to the South American Seriemas, crane relatives with a very similar appearance and lifestyle. But this resemblance is due to convergent evolution (about which I've written before). Molecular studies have indicated that it does belong with the other birds of prey, but is distinct enough to warrant its own family, alongside those of the eagles, hawks and Old World vultures, falcons, and New World vultures.

This bird ranges over all savannah grassland areas of Sub-Saharan Africa. Savannah is grassland dotted with widely spaced trees. Secretary birds have quite large ranges, and cover lots of ground each day striding through the grass with their long legs. Occasionally they will stop and stomp a particular patch with their feet. They might either be trying to drive insects or rodents out, or they might actually be in the process of killing a snake. Their long, thin legs, protected by tough scales, keep their bodies a good distance away from the snake's head which they target, with fast, powerful kicks. Their toes are short but armed with sharp, curved claws. They might also peck at the snake's head with their bills if they feel they can get a safe blow in.

They might stomp on rodents and insects, too, but this technique is most useful with snakes. Because of their short toes, they don't carry food in their feet like eagles and falcons do. They will carry prey to their chicks in their bills, or in their crops for regurgitation in the nest.

While Secretary birds hunt in the grass, they sleep and nest in trees – actually most of the time on trees. Their favourite tree is the Umbrella Thorn, Acacia tortilis, which has a spreading and very dense thorny crown. Secretary birds make their nests right on the top of these dense crowns, giving them very good protection from predators like jackals, wild cats or leopards. While these have difficulty getting through the thorns from below, secretary bird chicks are sometimes taken from above by other birds-of-prey, or by crows.

An incorrectly-coloured secretary bird features on the coat of arms of South Africa.

It's also on the national emblem of Sudan.

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