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What is a Secretary Bird?

By Steve R.
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A relative of the buzzard and vulture, the secretary bird is a long-legged, mostly white bird that stands about four feet (about 1.2 meters) high and weighs five to nine pounds (about 2.3 to 4.3 kg). Found commonly in Africa, south of the Sahara Desert, the bird makes its home in savannas. The secretary bird is believed to be named for its resemblance to European male secretaries of the 1800s who sported gray tailcoats, dark pants, and carried quill pens behind their ears. The bird sports many of the same characteristics, with its black feathers on its legs that resemble pants and dark quills behind its ears.

While capable of flight, the secretary bird spends more time on foot, especially to catch food. Often traveling in pairs, the birds are capable of covering more than 20 miles (about 32 km) in a single day. The bird's diet consists of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and other birds. A bird of prey, the secretary bird uses its speed to chase down creatures and then will uses its bill or feet as a weapon. After stunning its prey, the bird then swallows its food.

Known by the scientific name Sagittarius serpentarius, which translates to the archer of the snake, the secretary bird is especially noted for its hunting of snakes, even venomous ones. The bird will clutch a snake with its powerful toes and then thrash it on the ground. The bird is also an opportunist when seeking food. After a fire in the savanna, the bird will rummage through the debris for any small creatures that were caught in the fire.

Males will attract mates by soaring high into the sky and then quickly plunging down. When males and females pair up, they often make croaking noises and then become mates for life. Territorial creatures, the birds will make a nest in the same area annually and will continue to add sticks, leaves, animal fur, and grass to their nests. Nests, which can reach up to eight feet (about 2.4 meters) in length, are often built in the top of acacia trees.

A female will typically lay one to three eggs. Eggs take less than 50 days to hatch. The parents will directly feed insects and tiny animals to their young. In a little over a month, the babies are capable of eating on their own. Within two months, the young are able to fly and hunt for themselves. Once self-sufficient, the young birds will leave their nest. In the wild, the secretary bird can live up to 15 years.

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