Skip links

Secretary Bird – Sagittarius Serpentarius

One of the most unusual and iconic birds found in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Secretary Bird has many tales of how it got its name. The most popular being that the long quill like feathers that adorn the nape of the bird resemble an array of 19th centaury ink quills stuck behind the ear of a secretary or desk clerk. Another more likely and compelling explanation is that the French word secretaire is derived from the Arabic Saqua ettair meaning “hunter bird”. The Latin name of Sagittarius Serpentarius is much easier to explain, Sagittarius (the only one in this genus) is also known as the archer of the night skies and it is not difficult to draw a comparison between arrows and the long feathers on the top of the head. The serpentarius (species) would then refer to the well known fact that these birds love to stomp on snakes to immobilize and kill them before swallowing them whole. Although this is what these birds are most famous for, snakes in fact only make up a small percentage of their diet. Mostly small insects, reptiles, rodents and in fact any prey species that they can overpower is consumed. They have also been witnessed feeding on small tortoises, francolins and mongoose.

Standing an impressive 1.3 meters tall these birds are often spotted from a great distance away, stalking through open grassland or savannah areas in search of prey. They can cover an impressive 20-30 kilometres a day walking at a steady 2-3 kilometres an hour. The adult birds have orange facial skin while juvenile birds have yellow facial skin. Grey-black plumage and long pinkish legs make this bird hard to mistake.

It is during the breeding season that these birds reveal their birds of prey roots. As part of the courtship display one or both of these birds soar high into the sky before performing an eagle-like penduluming display in which one or both of the birds make a shallow dive before veering upwards, stalling and then diving again, repeating this and at intervals uttering a hoarse croak.

Secretary birds nest on a platform made out of sticks with a lining of dry grass as insulation, their nests can usually be found at the top of a flat topped acacia tree. The female incubates a clutch of between 1-3 eggs but 4 have been recorded though highly unusual. The male forages and brings the female food in his crop before disgorging it onto the floor of the nest; the male will also feed the chicks in the same way once they hatch.

With the Secretary bird being recently added to the international red data list as a vulnerable species is not hard to imagine why, along with its unique appearance, it has been declared the 2019 bird of the year in South Africa.

Come to Thanda Safari and you may very well be lucky enough to spot one of these majestic creatures stalking prey or soaring high above.

Leave a comment