Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Really Weird Birds: The Secretary Bird

The secretary bird is native to sub-Saharan African grasslands and savannas, and is a quite unusual looking bird of prey. 

This bird is the only species in the family Sagittariidae.  It derives its name from its long head feathers, which stick out from the back of its head similar to the quill pens that secretaries once placed behind their ears.

Secretary Bird hunting for prey

Also male secretaries wore gray tailcoats and dark knee-length pants, looking very similar to the secretary bird’s physical features.  These birds also have the longest legs compared to any other bird of prey, making them up to four feet tall.  It has an eagle-like head and body, but with a much longer neck, and crane-like legs.

Secretary birds are excellent snake hunters, even capturing venomous snakes!  Unlike most birds of prey, these raptors are mostly terrestrial hunters, meaning they hunt their prey while on foot.  When a snake is found, the bird will hold out its wings and raise its feather crest.  Their flapping wing feathers serve as a distraction or target for a venomous snake, since a bite to a feather will not harm the secretary bird.  Often adult pairs will hunt together and stalk their prey through the grass.  In addition to snakes, they will also hunt small mammals, lizards, birds, and large insects.  When a prey item is spotted, it is killed by either being stomped on or with rapid foot grabs and releases.  Check out this video of a Secretary bird hunting, killing and eating a snake all in a little over a minute!

Secretary Birds on a nest in an Acacia Tree - Masai Mara, Kenya

Secretary birds are good fliers and nest and roost up high in acacia trees.  During courtship, they fly in wide circles and perform swoops and downward plunges, sometimes clasping talons in midair.  They form monogamous pairs and build large platform nests up to eight feet across.  One to three eggs are laid and incubated mostly by the female.  Food and water is regurgitated into the chicks’ mouths.  In comparison, many other birds of prey will just tear food into small pieces or even give small whole prey to their chicks.

Secretary birds are widespread throughout their range, however their population is declining--and gone entirely in some locations.  Main causes for their decline are loss of habitat due to overgrazing livestock, human development and farming, as well as collisions and poisoning.  This species is protected under the Africa Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.  This species is even on the coat of arms of the countries of Sudan and South Africa! 

The World Bird Sanctuary does its part by increasing awareness about the importance of habitat protection through our education programs.  Become a friend of the sanctuary to help us fulfill our mission!   

Submitted by Sara Oliver, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist

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