The secretary bird is a bird of prey living in various parts of Africa. They prefer savannas and grasslands and sometimes live in lightly wooded areas or partly dry deserts. These large birds are very unusual in that they catch all their prey on the ground. Although they can fly, they do not use this much to their advantage when caching prey.
What’s in a name?
These birds were once thought to get the first part of their name because they look like secretaries in two ways. First of all, when these birds were first seen, male secretaries wore gray coats and black pants. Secretary birds have a gray head, neck, and chest, and the bottom part of their body is black. Also, when these birds were first discovered, secretaries used quill pens that they stuck behind their ears when not using the quills. Secretary birds have feathers behind their ears that sometimes look like quill pens. They actually get their name from the French word “secrétaire,” meaning “hunter bird.”
Secretary birds eat a variety of animals including small mammals, small birds, insects, lizards, and eggs. Despite this large range, they specialize in killing and eating snakes. In order to find food, a hungry secretary bird (or one with hungry chicks) will stamp through tall grass until it sees a snake scurrying away to what it thinks is safety. The secretary bird will then use its long legs to run after the snake. Once it catches up with its next meal, the secretary bird can kill it using several different methods. In one method, the bird will stomp on the snake until it dies. These birds can also hold the snake in its beak and whack it hard against the ground. They can also fly up high with the snake and drop it.
Secretary birds were specially designed to deal with snakes. They have legs with thick scales to protect themselves from snake bites. They can also use their wings to guard themselves from venomous snake bites. If a snake attempts to bite the bird’s wings, it will come away with a mouth full of feathers.
These animals are rather large and grow up to four feet (1.3 meters) tall. This is about as tall as the average 8-year-old human. From beak to tail tip, secretary birds can grow up to 5 feet (1.5 m) tall. They have a wingspan of up to 7 feet (2.2 m), but only weigh around 10 pounds (4.5 kg.)
Although secretary birds spend their waking hours on the ground, they roost in trees at night. In the morning, just a few hours after sunrise, these birds drop from their roosts to start their day of hunting. A mating pair of secretary birds have a territory of up to 19 square miles (50 sq km.)They will hunt throughout this territory and travel at most 20 miles (32 km) in one day. During the afternoon, the hottest part of the day, these birds will rest in the shade of a tree. Shortly before sunset they will return to their roost to spend another night.
Secretary birds are monogamous, staying with the same mate for life. Mating takes place all throughout the year. Both male and female preform an areal mating dance which includes loud calls. After building a nest of up to 8 feet (2.4 m) across, the female will lay 1 to 3 eggs. They hatch about 45 days later. After hatching, the young are fed regurgitated insects and other small animals. Although the adults do not have many major predators, the young are preyed on by birds of prey. When baby secretary birds are hungry, they start making a call to the parents to bring food. If food does not come soon enough, the call will keep getting louder until the young are satisfied. Secretary birds live for around 19 years in captivity and probably less in the wild.
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- Animal: The Definitive Visual Guide. David Burnie and Don E. Wilson, Smithsonian Institution, ISBN: 978-0-7566-6002-4
- Secretary bird: creative commons
- secretary bird range map: creative commons
- Mystery animal: “Mike” Michael L. Baird