A secretary bird (Sagittarius serpentarius) struts around in the high grasses, piercing white eyes scanning the ground in search of prey. Secretary birds are among Africa’s most iconic and loved birds. With the face of a caracara, legs of an ostrich, and medusa-like plumage on the head, they are an enigma to behold. For the longest time I had wondered how this bird had gotten its common name. My best guess was that its powerful leg strikes produced a pattering sound that could be likened to the sounds of a typewriter. It seems that instead the common name is owed to its crest of feathers around the head, which resemble quill pens tucked behind a secretary’s ear. The genus name Sagittarius translates to “archer,” and the quills may also be reminiscent of a quiver of arrows. Secretary birds belong to the Accipitriformes along with eagles, hawks, and vultures, and they are the only taxon in the family Sagittariidae.
Secretary birds are well known for their method of incapacitating prey. In contrast to most accipiters, they forage terrestrially, batting down prey items violently with their feet. The secretary bird’s long legs allow them to generate tremendous power, like a rigid jointed whip. The species name serpentarius has helped popularize the secretary bird’s reputation as a snake hunter. Indeed, they will regularly prey on snakes by striking the head repeatedly. Like cats, they are surprisingly precise in their aim, weakening prey by knocks to the head before stooping down to bite and deliver the final blow. However, secretary birds also consume a variety of other prey, including arthropods, reptiles, mammals, and birds. We spotted this secretary bird strolling along on the airstrip, using its feet to flush out prey and occasionally stomp and ingest something — probably a grasshopper or small lizard. It wandered weaved in and out of herds of impala and gazelles, and in contrast to the ungulates who spooked and ran away, it didn’t mind our approach at all. The secretary bird refused to glance up at us even a single time from a moderate distance. When we finally walked close enough, the secretary bird extended its enormous wings and took to the air, flying about 30 meters before landing and resuming the hunt. It was spectacular to witness the take-off. The black and white wings were so large that the bird’s pink bare legs didn’t seem as proportionally bizarre for a moment.
Photographed after pursuit