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Consider: the Secretarybird

Updated: 3 days ago

While I love all sorts of animals, I’ve always had a particularly soft spot for birds. I don’t think I’m alone in this: birdwatching is a common pastime around the world, while I’ve never heard of amphibian-watching, reptile-watching, arthropod-watching, et cetera. Birds have clear features that make them particularly attractive to humans: they’re cute, fluffy-looking, intelligent, and can fly. There are birds that can fly from continent to continent nonstop, birds that can build complex tools to solve novel problems, birds that can dive so deep into the ocean that they reach the twilight zone, so far down that very little light penetrates the water (and a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind).

But one bird holds a special place in my heart, my very favorite of all the creatures of the sky. Not only is it one of the most visually-striking animals on Earth, but this bird lives a lifestyle that is nothing short of badass. This incredible raptor prowls the savannahs of Africa: picking its way through the tall grass, hunting for some of the deadliest prey imaginable, and dispatching that prey with a strike that would fit right into a video game character’s move set. I am very pleased to ask you today to Consider: the Secretarybird. Sagittarius serpentarius.

Secretarybirds are raptors, birds of prey like hawks, eagles, and vultures. They are the tallest of all raptors, standing at just over 1.2 meters (4 feet) atop their long, spindly legs. They have coats of grey and white feathers distributed in such a way that they look like they’re wearing a shirt and pants, with a black crown atop their heads. These crown feathers normally sit back against their heads, but can be raised like a frill when the birds are excited, such as when tackling particularly dangerous prey or during courtship. Then of course, there are the legs, which are longer than the rest of the bird's body and have extra-thick scales on their feet.

Secretarybirds can be found in savannahs across sub-Saharan Africa, from Sudan to South Africa. A savannah is a type of grassland, characterized by hot, dry conditions and sparse tree cover. They are to grasslands as squares are to rectangles; all savannahs are grasslands, but not all grasslands are savannahs. Savannahs are home to many of the most charismatic animals in Africa: lions, cheetahs, elephants, hyenas, rhinoceroses. Secretarybirds share a habitat with all of these household names, but they have yet to get a hit movie starring Matthew Broderick and James Earl Jones. I don't know about you, but I'd certainly watch "The Secretarybird King".

A secretarybird taking a stroll through the savannah. A secretarybird may walk up to 32 kilometers (20 miles) a day, on the hunt for its next meal. Image Credit: Yoky under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Secretarybirds’ supermodel legs hint at the feature that makes them so unique amongst raptors: secretarybirds are ground hunters. While other raptors soar through the air to descend on their prey from above, secretarybirds pick their way through the tall savannah grasses on foot. A secretarybird may walk up to 32 kilometers (20 miles) a day on the hunt for prey, and they aren’t picky: rodents, reptiles, insects, and small birds are all on the menu. As such, secretarybirds play an important role in controlling the populations of small animals in their habitats, some of which, such as locusts and rats, can damage human agricultural yields or spread diseases. The long legs on a secretarybird grant them a crucial height advantage, allowing them to see over the tall grass in the savannahs they prowl. Despite having a terrestrial lifestyle, secretarybirds can still fly, and have been seen at altitudes of up to 3000 meters.

In addition to granting them a height advantage, secretarybirds’ legs double as powerful and reliable murder weapons. Secretarybirds will often dispatch their prey with some of the most amazing kicks in the animal kingdom. A single kick from a secretarybird can deliver a force of over 5 times their own body weight, equivalent to the force of a heavyweight boxer’s punch. They dish out this finishing move incredibly quickly: a secretarybird’s kick lasts only 15 milliseconds on average. When unleashing their kicks, secretarybirds aim for the head and neck, paralyzing or decapitating their targets in a single strike. Traumatic brain injuries are no joke, folks.

A secretarybird captured in the midst of wrecking some poor small animal’s day. Image Source: Shutterstock.

While secretarybirds eat just about anything they can stomp to death, they are particularly famous for their ability to hunt venomous snakes. Now, snakes of sub-Saharan Africa do not fuck around when it comes to venom (whether they fuck around in other aspects, I do not know). Some of the deadliest snakes in the world, such as the puff adder, spitting cobra, and black mamba all live alongside secretarybirds. Vipers, like the puff adder, have cytotoxic venom which can cause systemic hemorrhaging, while elapids, like cobras and mambas, have both cytotoxic and neurotoxic chemicals in their venoms, which can cause paralysis and involuntary muscle spasms.

Unlike some other snake-eating animals in Africa, secretarybirds have no immunity to venom, but yet are able to effectively hunt snakes thanks to clever strategy and their incredible legs. Secretarybird legs are just about the perfect snake-hunting tool. Long and slender, they allow the birds to strike while keeping their bodies out of the reach of a counterattack. The legs themselves have such a slim profile that defending snakes struggle to land a bite on them. When hunting snakes, secretarybirds puff out their feathers and raise their wings, making themselves look much larger than they actually are. A venomous snake’s bite can only harm the bird if it strikes flesh, so the feathers act as decoys. For most snakes facing a secretarybird, their last moments consist a mouthful of feathers and a swift kick to the back of the head.

In addition to being total badasses, secretarybirds are loyal partners and caring parents. They mate for life and choose their mates via a complex courtship dance, including leaps, head bobs, and occasionally midair talon-holding. Secretarybird mates will often hunt together, sweeping their territory in pairs to terrorize the small animals of the savannah. The birds nest atop low, thorny shrubs or mid-sized savannah trees such as acacias. These nests are impressively large, typically eight feet across, and can take over six months to build. Once they finish the nest, the secretarybirds mate and the female lays one to three eggs. Secretarybirds can get it on during any time of year, but they most often mate between late winter and early summer. The eggs hatch 42 to 46 days later.

Two secretarybirds nesting together atop a thorn tree. The kinds of trees secretarybirds nest in, such as acacias, are covered in thorns to dissuade herbivores from munching on their branches. These thorns also help to protect secretarybird nests from ground predators hungry for some exotic chicken nuggets. Image source: Sankara Subramanian, under CC BY-SA 2.0.

For the first few months of their lives, the secretarybird chicks stay in the nest, dependent upon their parents for support. Both parents assist in caring for the chicks, taking turns regurgitating food into their mouths. While off of the ground and away from terrestrial predators, secretarybird nests are exposed to the open air. As such, the parents must be on the lookout for crows and kites, who may see secretarybird chicks as prey. Should the chicks survive though, they fledge at 12 weeks old and begin venturing out of the nest. The parents will teach their fledglings how to fly and how to hunt. Fledgling secretarybirds will often hunt alongside their parents as they learn how to scour the savannahs for prey. It’s like a family vacation! What, your family vacations don’t involve murder? Your family must be pretty lame.

Unfortunately, these incredible birds are endangered, having been updated to Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2020. Since the 1990s, sightings of secretarybirds in some regions of Africa have dropped drastically. An assessment of road survey data from northern Kenya over a 40-year period found that secretarybird sightings in the country have declined by 94%, signaling that the species is in severe danger of extinction. As with many other savannah species, secretarybirds struggle due to habitat loss and land degradation. As savannahs are converted into farmland, the birds, as well as many other savannah animals, lose their habitats. A 2012 study by Stuart Pimm from Duke University found that 75% of the savannah land in sub-Saharan Africa has been converted for human use. Additionally, many farmers use pesticides to keep animals such as insects, rodents, and birds like the red quelea away from their fields. While this can increase agricultural yields, the poisons ingested by these pest animals can be passed on to their predators. This process of an unintended species being hurt by poisons meant for a prey species is known as secondary poisoning, and it is partly responsible for the decline of many African raptor species, such as vultures and secretarybirds. A very similar thing happened in America in the 20th century, when bald eagles ended up ingesting the pesticide DDT, which was used to protect crops from insect pests.

Power lines, too, can be dangerous for many large bird species, secretarybirds included. Large birds tend to fly low, and they can have trouble seeing power lines or other electrical equipment, causing them to crash. The resulting damage from the crash can either kill the birds outright or injure them enough to where they can no longer defend themselves from predators. These same power lines also frequently injure birds such as flamingos, bustards, and pelicans. It can be difficult to tell how frequently secretarybirds are killed by power infrastructure, however, as scavengers often consume the corpses before they can be found by people.

Another factor threatening African savannahs is encroachment by forest and shrubland. Over the last century, African savannahs have shrunk and been replaced by woody vegetation such as trees and bushes. Three factors are likely to blame for this sudden increase: the interruption of the fire cycle, climate change, and the endangerment of large herbivores. As with other grasslands worldwide, fire plays a major role in allowing African savannahs to proliferate. Grasses typically recover from fires more quickly than woody plants, so semi-regular fires help keep trees and bushes in check, while also replenishing the soil to allow for fresh growth. When natural fires are suppressed, these slower-growing woody plants can take over, crowding out grasses and destroying savannah ecosystems. Research has also shown that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels affect how quickly trees can recover after a fire: the higher the atmospheric CO2 level is, the faster trees regrow after a burn. As humans continue to pump CO2 into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, the growth advantage that grasses have over trees will further diminish, leading to fewer savannahs.

Finally, it’s hard to overstate the importance of large herbivores in the preservation of African savannahs, elephants especially. Elephants are ecosystem engineers, meaning that they directly perform actions which alter their ecosystems in which they live. Elephants often tear down trees in order to eat their leaves and bark. This kills the trees, preventing them from crowding out the grasslands and creating habitats for thousands of insect species within the rotting wood. No other animal in Africa is large and strong enough to uproot trees (though perhaps if meerkats get personal trainers, they can get some of the way there), so this service can only be provided by elephants. Elephant dung also helps to fertilize the savannah and spread seeds, helping to maintain the diversity of grassland ecosystems. Unfortunately, elephants are endangered, primarily due to ivory poaching, making the important services they provide rarer.

These problems don't just affect the secretarybird, but a whole host of African wildlife. Some of the most culturally-important and charismatic animals on Earth, from lions to giraffes to hyenas, depend on savannah ecosystems to survive. Without human intervention, Africa’s savannahs may soon cease to exist outside of a handful of protected nature reserves, robbing our planet of the many amazing animals which call that ecosystem home.

So what can we do to protect the secretarybird, as well as the host of other species that call Africa’s savannahs home? I spoke with Sidney Shema, a Kenyan ornithologist and wildlife photographer, to learn more. Sidney recently worked with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL)’s EDGE of Existence Program, where he studied secretarybird population trends across Kenya, as well as the largest threats to the species. He believes that the way forward for the species is for the government of Kenya to listen to conservationists and develop a nationwide land use plan.

“What would need to happen to fix that [the loss of secretarybird habitat] is proper land use planning,” Sidney told me. “It’s a very complex thing, because it’s something that involves many stakeholders, including the national government…Kenya is a developing country, so there’s big projects going on: infrastructure, roads, pipelines, new small towns. The government has many plans in the works for land development, and there’s things that are already happening.”

As in many other developing nations around the world, the Kenyan government often does not consider the environmental impacts of land development and pest control. Between 2019 and 2022, the Kenyan government launched a massive insecticide campaign in an attempt to mitigate the effects of a gargantuan locust swarm that threatened all of East Africa. Conservation biologists were not asked about what the effects of this mass poisoning would be on local wildlife. The resulting campaign killed many bird species, from vultures to eagles to secretarybirds, via secondary poisoning. The sad irony is that many of these birds actively prey on locusts, especially secretarybirds, so a decrease in their populations could result in larger, more destructive locust swarms in the future, necessitating more pesticides.

A locust swam in Satrokala, Madagascar in 2014. Secretarybirds love to eat locusts, and some studies estimate that 75% of their diet consists of arthropods. Unfortunately, secretarybirds cannot tell the difference between a locust that is safe to eat and one laden with dangerous pesticides. Image Credit: Iwoelbern under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Ultimately, secretarybirds share a problem common to many endangered species around the world: societies and governments often prioritize human development over environmental preservation. Improving infrastructure in developing countries is important. The people of Eastern Africa deserve access to stable food sources, clean water, safe shelter, reliable healthcare, and all of the other luxuries that we in the West take for granted. At the same time, destroying ecosystems in order to improve the lives of people has major consequences. The Western world largely developed by destroying ecosystems: chopping down forests, converting grasslands into farmland, massacring wildlife, and burning fossil fuels, even after we knew they were dangerous to the planet’s climate. Those irresponsible behaviors ultimately led to the climate disaster, the largest existential threat humankind has ever faced.

If humans are going to continue to thrive on this planet, we need to figure out how to lift ourselves up while also protecting the natural environments that we rely on. That will require not only a general change of attitude towards the environment, but investing in developing nations to give them the resources they need in order to improve the lives of their citizens without destroying their environments in the process as well. Without that investment, governments of developing countries become stuck between protecting the environment or protecting their citizens, a choice no one should have to make.

Shifting worldwide public opinion on the importance of the environment is going to take time, but in the meanwhile, there are things we can do to help protect secretarybirds, as well as other raptor species. The Peregrine Fund is an international organization which protects and researches birds of prey worldwide. They lead research studies (such as the road survey study I mentioned above), educate people about the ecological importance of raptors, and run outreach programs to give ordinary people chances to interact with wildlife. You can learn more about The Peregrine Fund and support their mission by clicking here. The Kenya Bird of Prey Trust is an organization committed to the research, conservation, and rehabilitation of raptor species in Kenya. They monitor raptor populations around the country, care for birds injured by power lines or secondary poisoning, and educate people on the importance of birds of prey. Currently, the Bird of Prey Trust is developing artificial nests for secretarybirds at the Soysambu Conservancy, a large wildlife preserve in Africa’s Great Rift Valley. I invite you to click here to learn more about the Bird of Prey trust, and consider donating to help further their mission.

Secretarybirds are beautiful, unique animals the likes of which exist nowhere else on Earth. They are skilled hunters, attentive parents, and important predators for the control of rodent and insect populations. They are the only bird species in the world that hunt the way they do, using their feathers and powerful legs to stand up to some of the most dangerous snakes on Earth. Despite how awesome secretarybirds are, they face major threats due to the destruction of their habitats and other conflicts with human development. In order to keep these and many other amazing savannah species from vanishing forever, human societies need to consider the impacts that our decisions have on the environment while also continuing to provide important infrastructure and quality of life to people around the world.

Image credit: Shutterstock

Thank you very much for taking the time to read this article. I hope you learned something new and had a good laugh or two along the way. If you are interested in learning more about Consider Nature or wish to receive updates when new articles are posted, consider joining our email list at the bottom of the homepage, or join our Discord Server by clicking here.

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