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Birding with Nico Myburgh
Cover, Village Life No 22

From Issue No 22

The only one of its kind

 

Secretary Bird – Sagittarius sepentarias (Afrikaans: Sekretarisvoël)

 

The Secretary Bird is by far the largest bird of prey in the whole of Africa, and one of the biggest in the world. Its length, tip to tail, is about 1,45 metres and the bird standing up straight is about 1,2 metres tall. It is the only species in the family Sagittaridae.

They occur all over South Africa wherever there is open or sparse acacia veld, and with their very long legs they easily walk through quite tall grass or low bushes. They are mostly seen walking, singly or sometimes as a pair, as they do most of their hunting in this way. When disturbed they either run away quite fast or, if need be, run and then take off. They are very capable fliers once in the air. The bird derived its name from its crest of twenty feathers, which resembles quill pens stuck behind the ear of a scribe of yore.

Secretary Birds are the only birds of prey in the world that hunt exclusively on the ground. They will catch and eat almost anything from tortoises, insects like locusts or armoured crickets, to hares, small antelope and – a great favourite – snakes, poisonous or not (hence the second part of the name). Killing is done by hopping up and stomping down on the prey with their feet, and they always make very sure the prey, especially a snake, is quite dead before they eat it.

The species is not deemed endangered, although it is thought local numbers may have declined in recent times. Farmers fortunately do not regard secretary birds as a problem, as the birds do not catch livestock and probably also because they are known as killers of snakes.

The nest is a huge structure of coarse sticks and grass, sometimes nearly two metres high. The birds are monogamous and a pair will often use the same nest year after year. They nest in the tops of trees, mostly acacias, sometime as high as 10 metres above ground. In Bushmanland, where tall trees are very rare, they will nest in a bush as low as 1,5 metres. Two or three eggs are laid and if enough food is available, all three will fledge; if not, the weaker chick will die and sometimes only one will survive.

When not breeding they use the nest to roost at night. They always land on the ground when flying in, then they use a “landing strip” (usually two strips, depending on the prevailing wind), from where they run into the wind, take off and land on the nest. This has to be carefully timed or they will overshoot the nest and break a leg on the other side. Occasionally when the wind was just right we saw them fly straight in and land on the nest, but this is not a regular practice.

When feeding the chicks, the parents bring them water about twice daily. They come in with a full crop of water, then stand on the nest about 25 cm away from the chicks and squirt a jet of water down the chick’s throat. You can actually hear the sound, like filling a bottle under a tap until it is quite full. When the chicks are small the parents can top up all three with one visit, but when the chicks get to near full size they can do only one at a time, so it takes about six visits a day, just for water. This applies mainly in arid areas such as Bushmanland; in more temperate regions the need for water is not nearly so great.

Quite a while ago when I was still farming on the Eerste River at Faure, a Secretary Bird had a nest in a Penaster pine, 6 metres high. About 100 metres away, also in a pine, was a Jackal Buzzard nest with a large chick. It was wheat-harvesting time, in the old days of the self-binder machines, so the crop was in sheaves stacked in piles – which would soon become home to a colony of field mice. When we were binding up sheaves, the Secretary Bird would follow about 50 metres behind and have a real party catching the mice.

Then one day we suddenly saw the young buzzard above us, probably on its first flight. It landed in the stubble-field about 150 metres away. The next moment the Secretary Bird, with wings flapping, started stomping the young buzzard. In no time it was dead! But then, with a loud “poi-poi” call the buzzard adults both came screaming down and slammed into the Secretary Bird, one from each side. The workers and I ran as fast as we could, but it was too late – the secretary bird was lying on the ground, alive but badly injured. I fetched my water bag and tried to revive it, but it died ten minutes later.

The story is not altogether sad. The surviving Secretary Bird stayed with the chick. I brought it whatever food I could collect: chickens, the odd francolin (which I had to shoot, but I thought it was for a good cause), and donations of various items of prey from neighbours, which I then put on the nest. All contributions were gratefully received by the birds and the chick fledged.

The next year the secretary bird had a new mate and used the same nest again. The buzzards also bred again the next season, successfully this time, so it all ended quite happily.

 

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Secretary Birds are mostly seen walking on the ground, where they do all their hunting

Secretary Birds are mostly seen walking on the ground, where they do all their hunting

A Secretary Bird squirting water down the gullet of an offspring

A Secretary Bird squirting water down the gullet of an offspring

A hide constructed of wooden poles and anchored by steel wires, from where a nesting pair of Secretary Birds were photographed

Not for the feint of heart – a hide constructed of wooden poles and anchored by steel wires, from where a nesting pair of Secretary Birds were photographed

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