Meet the secretary bird

Photo by Dylan. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 04-20-2023.

I’m excited to tell you all about this week’s animal. It holds a special place in my heart because it’s so cool: the secretary bird.

First off, just look at that face. Absolutely fierce.

Photo by Martin Heigan. Retrieved from Flickr on 04-20-2023.

And secondly, they hunt in such a cool way. I’ll talk about it at the end of this post, but here’s a hint if you want to guess how secretary birds hunt: they use their legs.

But before we get there, let’s go through some basic facts.

Secretary birds (Sagittarius serpentarius) are tall, long-legged raptors living in sub-Saharan Africa’s savannas and grasslands. For two reasons, you’ll almost certainly find these birds standing on the ground, not in a tree: first, secretary birds spend most of their time moving around on foot. And second, they reach an impressive four feet tall!

Secretaries

Unfortunately, there is no known instance of secretary birds acting as secretaries and taking notes for someone. So, why are they called secretary birds?

One theory is that they’re named after 19th-century lawyer’s clerks, to which they have a passing resemblance. These clerks, or secretaries, wore gray coats and knee-length black pants. They would also sometimes tuck quill pens behind their ears. While secretary birds aren’t wearing coats, they do have gray feathers, legs with the top half covered in black feathers, and head feathers that look like quills.

Photo by Sergey Yeliseev. Retrieved from Flickr on 04-20-2023.

Another theory is that ‘secretary’ is a corruption of the Arabic phrase ‘saqr et-tair.’ This phrase roughly translates to “hunter bird,” and one traveler to Sudan claims to have heard Arabic speakers call the secretary bird by this name. However, some experts have doubted this explanation due to linguistics and the fact that no one else has apparently heard the bird being called saqr-et-tair.

Long legs

Secretary birds get most of their height through their long legs. And these legs are long! In fact, secretary birds have the longest legs of any bird of prey. They’re also so long that secretary birds have to crouch to eat or drink off the ground.

What do these long legs look like? As I alluded to earlier, the top half of the legs are covered in black feathers; some people think it looks like secretary birds are wearing bicycle shorts. The rest of the legs are covered in scales, which protect them from getting bitten by their prey.

Legs for days. Photo by Ben Lunsford. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 04-20-2023.

And these legs were made for walking. Which is good, because secretary birds walk a lot. They spend most of their day walking, and a single secretary bird can walk between 12 and 18 miles (20 – 30 km) daily.

On the flip side, because their feet are adapted for walking, secretary birds can’t really grasp things with their feet. The food they catch is either eaten immediately or carried away via their beak.

Can fly but choose not to

Now, just because secretary birds walk a lot doesn’t mean they can’t fly. In fact, secretary birds are quite strong fliers and incorporate flying into their courtship displays.

Secretary birds also rely on flight to get to their nests. These birds nest on the tops of trees, usually acacia trees. These nests are used repeatedly through the years, with each male-female pair adding to it each season. A secretary bird nest can reach up to 8 feet across at its largest!

STOMP!

Here’s the entertaining part of secretary birds: they hunt by stomping their prey!

Secretary birds are one of two birds of prey that primarily hunt on the ground and not from the air (the other species is the caracara). They primarily hunt small rodents, reptiles, and amphibians. Secretary birds are particularly famous for their ability to hunt snakes. In fact, their scientific name means “the archer of snakes.”

How does a secretary bird stomp a venomous snake without getting poisoned? First, remember that the lower half of a secretary bird’s legs are covered in scales. This serves as a first layer of protection. Secretary birds also use their almost seven-foot wingspan to distract the snake as they stomp. If the snake does strike, it’ll only get a mouthful of feathers. And, since these feathers are hollow, getting bit is no problem at all!

Hunting by stomping is pretty straightforward. Secretary birds chase their prey on foot. When their prey is caught, they stomp it until it is dead or stunned enough to eat. Sometimes, secretary birds forego stomping and instead use their beak to spear their prey. But stomping is usually the way these hunts go, and it’s a big stomp. Secretary birds stomp with a force of 195 Newtons, or about five times their own body weight.

Watch the kick in action!

Some experts think that secretary bird stomping is similar to how the dinosaur-like terror birds hunted five million years ago. I’m glad secretary birds are the largest stomping creature currently out there. While I’d be ecstatic to see a secretary bird in real life, I’m much less excited at the prospect of a 10-foot-tall hunter.

Resources

National Geographic

San Diego Zoo

The Peregrine Fund

Animal Diversity Web

Scientific American

Fact Animal

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