Earlier in the week, I was talking with a friend about my blog, and I don’t how it came up, but he mentioned the secretary bird. All I knew about these birds was that they were African, and I only knew that because of the wonderful game Sim Safari. Of course, when I come across an animal I don’t know much about, my instinct is to look it up and then write about it. So here we are!

What little Sim Safari taught me seems to have been accurate; secretary birds are found throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa. They mostly live in grassland or savannah, though they will live in semi-deserts or wooded scrub areas. They are not, however, found in the extremes of these climes – i.e. extreme deserts and thickly wooded areas. Secretary birds also like to hang around places where they can see, which means being in grasses less than a meter in height. They are in their own family, Sagittariidae, though they are related to raptors such as buzzards and harriers.

Secretary birds earned their names from the black feathers on their head, which resemble things secretaries used to wear (apparently).
Image By Yoky – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

These birds are quite large, standing between 0.9-1.2 meters tall, and weigh from 2.3 to 4.3 kilograms. They have wingspans of over a meter. Secretary birds are usually grey all over, with black wing tips and a black crest on their heads. The eyes are surrounded by orange or red skin. A distinctive feature for the secretary bird is its long legs – these are unusual for a raptor.

As birds of prey, secretary birds are hunters, eating insects, mice, hares, mongooses, and some reptiles and birds. They are unusual among raptors in that they hunt on foot instead of on the wing. They travel through vegetation stomping as they go, to flush out any prey hiding in the bushes. If prey is small, the bird will run in with its long legs and catch it in its sharp beak. When the bird finds large prey, it will stamp on the victim until it’s knocked out enough to be swallowed. They have extremely powerful kicks, with a kick having the capability to shatter a human hand. They also usually hunt in pairs or family groups, so watch out!

Secretary birds are famous for eating snakes, though this one has a lizard. They stomp on snakes’ backs to break their necks, and some reports even have them dropping snakes from great heights to kill them (these are unproven). And in spite of popular myth, secretary birds don’t actually eat snakes all that much.
Image By Jean & Nathalie – Secretary Bird & LizardUploaded by snowmanradio, CC BY 2.0

Secretary birds generally mate for life, with pairs making nests in the tops of flat trees, such as acacias. They reuse the nest from year to year, and constantly add to it, so nests can get quite large (up to 2.5 meters in diameter!). Females lay from one to three eggs, though in clutches of three the smallest chick usually dies as the older chicks outcompete it. Secretary bird chicks are slow to develop, and are only able to stand on their own after six weeks. They fledge at two to three months, and are dependent on their parents until six months of age.

With their funny crests and powerful kicks, secretary birds have definitely become one of my favourite birds. Hopefully they’re now one of yours, too!

Cover image By Brian Ralphs from Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, UK – 2009-03-15 Kalahara Nossop 272, CC BY 2.0