There is no raptor quite so removed from the typical confines of what a bird of prey should look and behave like. Although they share some affinities with typical raptors (building eagle-like nests and possessing hooked bills) Secretarybirds have many characteristics that warrant them to be placed in their own genus, Sagittarius. They are the most terrestrial bird of prey in the world, regularly covering over 20 miles a day in their relentless search for food. Secretarybirds seem more crane than raptor as their four-foot frames stride across the open plains of places like the Makgadikgadi Pans of Botswana. Unlike other raptors, they have short thick toes that are unable to grasp and they have the longest legs of any bird of prey. So long that they have to crouch to drink or pick up food. Uncharacteristically of raptors, males are larger than females. Their faces, with their bare facial skin, are somewhat reminiscent of the caracaras. But perhaps it is their unique habit of regurgitating food and water for their chicks that is most “unraptor-like”. Other birds of prey bring whole prey items back to the nest and then rip off small bits to feed the chicks.
Their bizarre appearance is reflected by the name although much debate surrounds the actual origins of the nomenclature. One theory is that Secretarybirds are named for the 20 distinctive black crest feathers, resembling quill pens stuck behind their (invisible) ears, much in the manner of secretaries of a bygone era. Their two incredibly long central tail streamers resemble the tail-coats that many of the – mostly male – secretaries wore in those days. A more recent theory on the origins of the name, is that it is a corruption of the Arabic Saqu Ettair meaning “hunter-bird”, which was incorrectly transcribed into French as secrétaire which was then re-translated into English as “secretary”. They do have some remarkably long eye-lashes which, in addition to the elegant head-plumes, would be the envy of any secretary of the fairer sex!
Secretarybirds feed on small lizards, insects, rodents, birds eggs and, of course, snakes. It was erroneously believed that snakes were the predominant prey item and in fact, the scientific name of Sagittarius serpentarius translates as “archer of snakes”. But recent studies have shown that snakes actually only make up a very small percentage of the diet – around 2%. Another erroneous myth is that Secretarybirds are immune to the venom of snakes. In reality this is not true and they can easily succumb to the venom of many of Africa’s poisonous serpents. Secretarybirds counter this by being very careful when killing snakes and ensuring that the prey is dead before eating it. They typically dispatch a snake by stomping on it with their heavily armored legs and feet, accurately directing their rear talons at the skull to effect a swift mortal wound to the head.
Sometimes they will pick up other prey and, aided by their incredible height, they will kill the prey by repeatedly dropping it on hard ground. Watching them hunt is fascinating. I’ve seen Secretarybirds zigzag after fleeing animals, spreading their huge wings periodically, presumably in an effort to maintain their balance as they twist and turn. But another reason might be that the wing flares confuse the prey. On several occasions I’ve seen animals that are making a beeline towards shelter double-back when the wings are spread straight into their waiting talons. Another strategy regularly employed by these weird raptors is that they will soar great distances, utilizing thermals in search of bush-fires. When a fire is located they will descend and feed upon small animals that flee the flames.
On a recent filming trip to the Makgadikgadi Pans of Botswana we followed two Secretarybirds for several hours. This part of Botswana – the magnificent Makgadikgadi Pans – is a truly unforgettable birding location. Coursers, larks, korhaans and other dry country specialists abound here. As do a diverse suite of other wildlife from lions and zebras to ground squirrels and meerkats. Martial Eagles, Tawny Eagles, Brown and Black-chested Snake-Eagles, Lapped-faced Vultures, Pale-chanting Goshawks and many other raptors are remarkably common.
Habituated meerkats at Jack’s Camp are a welcome distraction from the birding
When we first found the Secretarybirds, a larger bird (male?) was relentlessly pursuing the smaller bird, probably a female. Even by vehicle we seriously struggled to keep up with both birds as they tore across the plains. Our task was not made any easier by the many potholes and porcupine burrows. But it was the long strides of the birds that nearly got the better of our highly mobile crew. On several occasions we actually lost the birds entirely and it took a determined effort to relocate them. Eventually the smaller bird flew off and the larger bird decided not to follow.
We stayed with the larger bird as it settled down to the serious business of hunting. With its black stockings down to the knees and its proud gait, the bird reminded me of a pompous businessman looking for some lost item in the grass. All that was remiss was a loupe magnifying glass held to its eye. The secretarybird picked up about a dozen small items, probably insects or beetles, before it happened upon something in the grass. The bird’s vicious stomping and kicking gave away the identity of the prey before it was seen. And then a small yellow snake was picked up and gulped down head-first.
If you ever make it to Botswana don’t miss out the Makgadikgadi Pans. You will leave wanting to come back for more. Enjoy the below episode featuring this wonderful part of the world and the striding snake-killers of the Botswana plains.