Mingling with zebras and gazelles you can sometimes see this curious creature on the African savannah. We saw this individual in Zambia. They are not as prevalent as vultures or weavers, and usually a great distance from the road moving quickly away if approached. They are strong and determined, wacky-looking, and ferocious if necessary.
Although it is a raptor, the secretary bird is more of a walker than a flier; using those long crane-like legs to stalk through the tall grass hunting for prey. Sagittarius serpentarius primarily eats insects (like grasshoppers and beetles) and small mammals (like rats and hedgehogs); but it will also hunt and eat snakes, hares, and other creatures in the grass. I’ve read that it will use the opportunity of a raging fire to wait for the panicked escaping wildlife and then pounce on them.
This cool bird is the world’s only terrestrial bird of prey. While eagles, hawks, and other birds of prey use their wings to hunt, this one runs down prey–sometimes as fast as 20 mph–and takes it out by stomping, kicking, and crushing. It has functioning wings too, and sometimes flies. I’ve seen maybe a dozen secretary birds and they were always alone and never flying.
There are many theories about this bird’s unusual name. The one I have heard the most is that the black feathers on its head look like quills, resembling the way old-fashioned secretaries once kept their quill pens tucked behind their ears. I like this version because while I was a starving artist for half my life I worked as a secretary for a long time. So I have a place in my heart for secretaries, especially one with a spiky hairdo, long pantalooned legs, and eagle fierceness.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander