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St Lucia - Africa

This Month's Featured Species -

The Secretary bird

The Secretary bird - Sagittarius serpentarius

The Secretary bird has long feathers protruding from the back of its head, resembling the feathers that secretaries wore in their hats in times gone by.

'serpentarius' - in reference to the Secretary bird's snake eating habits.


The Secretary bird is a very large ground foraging bird standing up to 1.5m tall. The male and female Secretary bird look alike, but the male Secretary bird is slightly larger. When fully mature, the Secretary bird can weigh up to 4kg. They are plain grey above, with black flight feathers. When in flight, the Secretary bird's flight feathers extend out like fingers. The juvenile Secretary bird is slightly browner in comparison to the adult.

Feeding Habits of the Secretary bird

The Secretary bird is famous for its ability to hunt and eat snakes. Their long legs the secretary bird a long striking range, enabling them to strike at snakes without getting bitten. The Secretary bird had very little flesh on its lower legs, baking it impossible for a snake to inject venom. When a Secretary bird finds a snake, it will hold its body back and repeatedly strikes out with its legs. 

When Secretary bird had killed the snake it will swallow it whole in the case of a small snake, but larger prey is held with the feet and pieces torn off. Secretary birds are often seen with half a snake dangling from their bill, and sometimes, even tough it is half a snake, that half a snake writhes as it goes down! Secretary birds have been recorded eating a large variety of other prey including insects, lizards, skinks, birds, striped polecat, slender mongoose, tortoises, eggs and rodents. The Secretary bird swallows pebbles to help with digestion.

Secretary birds walk along, stopping occasionally to stamp the ground to flush out prey, which they pursue on foot or with short flights. Their hunting territories can be up to 20 square kilometers. Secretary birds are attracted to recently burned areas to eat small creatures killed by the fire. Secretary birds do not eat carrion. The Secretary regurgitates large pellets like eagle owls do. 

Distribution of the Secretary bird

The Secretary bird occurs throughout sub-Saharan Africa, except in forested areas. Secretary birds prefer savanna and open grasslands.

General Habits of the Secretary bird

Secretary birds usually move in pairs, but seeing solitary individuals is not uncommon. Groups of 50 or more Secretary birds are sometimes seen together at waterholes. Secretary birds often move around in the heat of the day, and roost in the top of a thorn tree at night. They often take dust baths and drink water regularly.


Secretary birds are monogamous and nest solitarily. They are territorial, with territories of up to 60 square kilometers around the nesting site. Intruding secretary birds are pursued and attacked. Both the female and male Secretary bird help in nest building. The Secretary bird builds a large nest platform, 100 - 150cm in diameter, in the top of a tree. Secretary bird nests are often used for many years.

Secretary birds lay 1 - 3 eggs, which are white, pale blue or pale green. Incubation takes 40 - 46 days. By 76 days of age the baby secretary birds are fully feathered. Both the male and female Secretary birds feed the young, and most clutches produce only on young, although double brooding has been recorded.


The Secretary Bird is usually silent, but deep croaking sounds are made during breeding displays. The young have a soft cheeping contact call and rasp loudly when hungry.

Population and Status

The Secretary bird is fairly common, but no estimates of total population size have been done. In the Kruger National Park in South Africa, there are at least 250 Secretary birds, and a total of about 1050 breeding pairs in the north eastern parts of South Africa.

Threats to the Secretary bird population include habitat destruction, road kills and power lines.

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