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Secretary Bird


Secretary bird - Sagittarius serpentarius

Secretary bird - Sagittarius serpentarius

Photo © Johan63 / iStockphoto.
The secretary bird (Sagittarius serpentarius) is a large bird of prey that inhabits grasslands and savannas throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Although the secretary bird is primarily a terrestrial bird, it is capable of flight. Secretary birds have long legs, a long neck and a large body. Despite it being a bird of prey, the secretary bird has a body structure that resembles that of a crane.

The plumage of the secretary bird is mostly grey with some white. Their flight feathers are black and they have a crest of black-tipped feathers lining the back of their head. They have patches of exposed skin around their eyes and bill that is a bright orange or reddish color. They have a strong, hooked bill. Their tail is long and has two elongated central retrices that are black-tipped.

The name "secretary bird" was long thought to have been derived from the elaborate feathers that adorn the back of the bird's head, since these feathers resemble the quill feathers that are used as pens. But the true origin of the name remains unclear, another possible explanation of the name "secretary bird" is that it was derived from the Arabic phrase "saqr-et-tair" or "hunter-bird".


Secretary birds are monogomous, forming a pair bond that is sustained throughout their life. Their courtship involves a raspy, croaking call and dancing displays both in the air and on the ground. They breed throughout the year with the peak breeding season occuring between August and March.

Secretary birds build a platform nest at the top of an acaia (or similar) tree. The nest is contructed out of sticks and lined with softer material. Females lay 1 to 3 eggs over the course of several days. Both parents share in the incubation of the eggs which lasts between 42 to 46 days. The youngest of the clutch often dies due to starvation (since the chicks hatch at intervals of several days, the youngest is ill equiped to compete with its larger siblings for its share of the food). Young fledge after 64 to 106 days.

Juvenile secretary birds fall prey to other birds such as owls, kites, crows, hornbills and ravens.

Size and Weight:

About 60 inches long with a wingspan of up to 80 inches. Stands about 4 feet tall. Weighs about 9 pounds.


Secretary birds hunt for prey on foot. They are opportunistic and enjoy a wide assortment of prey.

Adults often join together to hunt in pairs or small flocks. Secretary birds feed on small mammals (such as mice, hedghogs, rats, hares and mongoose) as well as reptiles (snakes, turtles and lizards), birds and insects.

Secretary birds locate prey by looking for movement on the ground. When prey is detected, they corner it by digging and stomping on the clumps of grass and vegetation in which prey might be hiding. They then capture any prey that they can flush out.

To kill their prey, secretary birds often stomp on it or strike it with their sharply hooked bill. In most cases, prey is usually swallowed whole. Occassionally secretary birds will tear their prey into smaller pieces in order to swallow it more easily.

After feeding, secretary birds regurgitate pellets to expel fur, bones and other indigestible material.


Secretary birds inhabit open grasslands, savannas, semi deserts, sparse woods and scrub regions throughout sub-Saharan Africa. They are absent from both excessively dry areas (such as the Namib desert) as well as wetter habitats (such as the equatorial tropical forests).


Secretary birds are the sole species belonging to the family Sagittariidae. Secretary birds are one of four groups of Falconiformes (the others being the falcons, accipiters and osprey).
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