The Secretary Bird

25th June 2010

The bird got its name in the 1700's when only men worked as secretaries. That was before the days of typewriters and even fountain pens. Quill pens, made from large feathers, were used for writing. Men wore wigs in those days and the secretaries found it handy to poke their pens into their wigs and let them hang down where they could get them when needed. When the men who studied wild life saw a bird with feathers hanging from the back of its head like the secretaries' pens, they called it the secretary bird.


Another name for the bird is "serpent eagle." That is because it just loves snakes--for dinner, that is. When it finds one it either kills it with a powerful forward kick or seizes it with its claws and strikes it on the back of the neck with its beak. It may use beak, wings and feet to kill a large snake. It uses its wings as shields to keep from being bitten. These birds have been known to kill snakes up to four feet long but their main food is small mammals and insects.


Secretary birds live in South Africa, so you are not likely to meet one. Some people tame them and keep them around their houses and barnyards to get rid of snakes and other pests. There is a law against killing them, because they are so useful as snake killers.


The secretary bird runs so fast that it is sometimes called "the devil's horse." It can run for a long time and has a large territory that it patrols every day. It makes its home in open grassland or in country where there are scattered bushes.


These birds are good flyers, as they should be, for they have a wingspan of seven feet! But they have a hard time getting off the ground. They have to make a long run with wings outspread before becoming airborne. One observer described the bird's take-off as like that of a long-distance bomber. Perhaps that is why they would rather run than fly.


Nests are built of branches and lined with grass. Instead of building a new nest each year, as many birds do, they add a new layer of grass. The female lays two or three large eggs, and then incubates them. Her mate brings her meals. Since it takes six weeks for the eggs to hatch, he has to do a lot of hunting.