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Secretary bird

secretary bird - head shot

What is about 4ft./1.3 m. tall, has amazingly luscious eyelashes and enjoys stomping and then snacking on snakes? Some new superhero about to grace our screens?1 I don't know about the screens but it is a superhero for ecosystem services and it is called a secretary bird.


The secretary bird is wide spread in sections of Africa and is technically known as Sagittarius serpentarius. It has an unusual common name and there are various theories about how this happened. One of the most common is that they reminded European explorers of legal clerks who wore black pants down to the knee and stuck their writing plumes in their hair or wig when not using them. An alternative is that it is a corruption of the Arabic 'saqr et-tair', which means hunting bird.

secretary bird in flight
secretary bird in flight

It looks like a typical raptor except for the elongated length of its legs. It has a wing span of about 2 m., and weighs in at about 2.5 to 4.5 kg. Its plumage is predominantly grey and black in colour.  It also features long black  feathers in a fan shape behind its head, and elongated tail feathers. Its face has orange bare patches, and its lower legs appear scaly and orange. (BTW, those spectacular eyelashes are modified feathers.) It can fly but spends most of its time on the ground looking for food.


map showing the geographical distribution of Sagittarius serpentarius
map showing the geographical distribution of Sagittarius serpentarius

As you can see from the distribution map on the right, they are found throughout a large area in Africa, excluding deserts and heavily forested areas. The most commonly quoted population figures range from 6,700 to 67,000, indicating that more research is needed to determine the figures more accurately.

Upper altitude of occurence: 3000 m.

Extent of occurrence (breeding/resident): 23,200,000 km2

Given the size of its distribution, it is found across many countries -Angola, Central African Republic, Chad, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Benin, Botswana , Nigeria, Mali,  Niger, Malawi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, Somalia, Senegal, Sudan, South Africa , Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe

Feeding and breeding

The secretary birds hunts by day while walking through grasslands and light scrub, over a 50 square km range. Its diet may consist of grasshoppers, lizards, rats, squirrels, shrews, small rodents and birds, birds’ eggs, chameleons, snakes, small tortoises and sometimes dead animals killed in grass or bush fires.  The importance of snakes in the diet has been exaggerated in the past, although they can be locally important and venomous species such as adders and cobras are regularly among the types of snake preyed upon. Secretary birds do not eat carrion.

Secretary birds are generally only vulnerable to predation as eggs and young birds in the nest. Their large, open nests leave the nestlings vulnerable to predation by crows, ravens and birds of prey, such as kites or eagle-owls. The nests are built atop trees and are flat dish shaped collections of sticks. Broods can contain up to 3 eggs and these take about 6 weeks to hatch. The young birds start to fledge at about 10 weeks later, but will stay with the parent birds for several months more to learn hunting techniques. Secretary birds can raise about 2 broods per year and they have a life span of about 12 years.


Ecological services

According to Simon Thomsett, a director at Kenya Bird of Prey Trust

You have some conservationists who judge the health of the ecosystem with the increase in elephants. But the elephant would hardly survive if the raptors were not there to clean up the environment2

Because secretary birds hunt on the ground, they encounter a different selection of prey organism than most other birds of prey and maintain an important position in the food web binding this community together. The community has evolved to keep numbers in check via its predator/prey interactions. Remember the Jenga!

Cultural significance

Secretary birds have obviously held some significance for people of the various countries where it is found. Records of its existence have been found in historical artefacts.

It is a prominent feature on the coat of arms of South Africa, which was adopted in 2000, and it is on the emblem of Sudan, adopted in 1969.

It has been featured on stamps from Tanzania, São Tomé and Príncipe, Uganda, South Africa, Togo, Botswana, Eritrea, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of the  Congo, the Republic of the Congo and Swaziland.


Parts of the bird have been used in traditional medicine by the Masai people and it is also found in records of culture of the Xhosa and Zulu peoples.

Summary of services provided for us

  • It eats a wide range of smaller animals some of which are considered pests.
  • It helps to regulate the number of poisonous reptiles in its communities.
  • It has held cultural significance for diverse human societies in Africa.
  • It has been used in traditional medicine.
  • Services for ecosystem stability

Threats to the services?

IUCN threat to species scale
IUCN threat to species scale

Conservation status

The IUCN status of the secretary bird has changed rapidly over the last two decades

1988 - 2000 Lower Risk/Least Concern

2004 - 2009 Lower Risk

2011 - 2016  Vulnerable

2016- now Endangered


  • Burning of grasslands
  • Loss of prey
  • Spreading cultivation and urbanization
  • Disturb nest sites (esp. herders)
  • Collisions with cars, utility lines, and aircraft
  • Wildlife trade
  • Hunting
  • Nest-raiding
  • Consuming poisoned carrion and water
  • Drought exacerbated by climate change (Durham University in the UK has maps showing the likely effects of climate change on Secretary birds. 2022 Species climate change impacts factsheet)

What can we do to retain these services?

  • CITES listing to control international trading
  • An Africa-wide monitoring program to obtain up-to-date population counts is needed
  • Where population size is declining,  education programs to raise awareness among local peoples, particularly livestock herders are needed

Dig deeper

  1. The Secretary Bird Is So Gorgeous, It Could Easily Become A Character In A Pixar Movie []
  2. Poison, persecution and people: why Kenya’s raptors are disappearing []
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