By Marco Fitchet
A large and distinctive bird of prey, the secretary bird (Sagittarius serpentarius) is said to take its unusual name from the strange and distinguishing arrangement of feathers on the back of its neck. This long, raised crest of black, spatula-shaped feathers is said to give the secretary bird the appearance of an old-fashioned secretary who would carry quill-pens tucked behind the ears. More recently, the case has been put forward that the name may actually be derived from the Arabic saqr-et-tair. Saqr means ‘hunter’ or ‘hawk’ and tair means ‘flight’ or ‘bird’, and the translation to French may have resulted in the common name that is used today.
Unique not only for its name, the secretary bird stands out because of its distinct profile, quite unlike that of any other bird. The feathers on the body are generally grey across the back and paler towards the rump and breast, while the belly, thighs and flight feathers are all black. The under wings are white. The eyes are brown and are surrounded by bare facial skin that is a deep orange-red, and the bill is blue-grey.
The secretary bird also has long, bare legs, which resemble those of a crane but are much more powerful, and end in small, stubby pink toes. Juvenile secretary birds are very similar to the adult, but are grey-eyed, with more brown in the plumage, a shorter tail and a yellow face, until the first moult.
Sometimes described as Africa’s ‘marching eagle’, the secretary bird prefers to move around on foot, easily covering between 20 and 30 kilometers a day when hunting for food. It spends much of its time stalking across the open ground, periodically stopping and stamping the floor to strike prey, which it will usually crush underfoot or repeatedly kick, before swallowing whole. The secretary bird’s diet primarily consists of large insects and small mammals, mainly rodents. However, it will feed opportunistically on any animal it comes across on its wandering travels, including hares, mongooses, squirrels, snakes, lizards, amphibians, freshwater crabs, and birds up to the size of guineafowl, as well as their eggs. Secretary birds have also been known to take domestic chickens when foraging in areas close to human habitation.
The secretary bird breeds year-round, but with a distinct peak during the spring and summer months further south. Two to three broods are often reared in productive years after good rainfall . The secretary bird makes a nest out of sticks, creating a large platform on a flat-topped acacia tree or other thorny bush, and lining it with dry grass and other materials. It may also nest in non-thorny or exotic tree species if preferred nesting sites are not available.
Following a courtship that is performed in flight and includes pendulum displays and calling, the female secretary bird will lay a clutch of one to three eggs, which are incubated for around 42 to 46 days. The nestling period typically lasts between 65 to 106 days, with a post fledging-dependence period of 62 to 105 days. After this time the juvenile secretary birds will leave the parental territory and range over long distances, displaying characteristic nomadic behaviour as seen in immature birds.
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