This incredible ‘raptor with crane like legs’ is an amazing sight on the Savannah grasslands of Masai Mara! The Secretary bird is an extraordinary, long-legged raptor adapted to a terrestrial predatory lifestyle. These impressive birds are about 4 feet tall and can be seen gracefully striding the grasslands for their typical prey of mice, insects, lizards and snakes…sometimes small mammals like hares.
It’s a black bird with a very distinctive appearance…a grey upper body, long legs with black leggings and a long pointed tail. It has big eyes, a powerful, curved eagle-like, beak and a bare orange face…with conspicuous quill feathers on it’s crown. The name ‘Secretary bird’ has mostly come from a Arabic word, ‘saqr-et-tair’ meaning ‘hunter-bird’ or from the quill feathers which were used for writing by old-time secretaries. We watched this bird in awe as it passed right in front of our vehicle….
Just as i was talking about it’s specialised lifestyle to my group…how it senses movement of reptiles in the grass and it’s hunting style…when suddenly it sensed a potential prey in the grass and reacted instantly by raising it expansive, black wings and erecting it’s long quill feathers!
It became very focused on some prey in the grass…which we could not see…then we saw it using it long powerful legs to literally stamp the prey to death! It was so amazing to see it in action!
The stamping of the prey was so hard that it could hear the thumps for a long distance…we were about 20 metres away. But we still could not see what it was stamping…a snake? This went on for a few minutes…and all the time it’s wings were spread widely and quill feathers erect! They have a special weapon of ‘hardened pads’ on feet which they use to stamp prey like snakes and reptiles.
Finally a glimpse of the prey…a snake!! Wow! It was a big, thick snake…maybe a Puff Adder? It took about ten minutes for this big bird to overcome the snake! It then proceeded to tear up chunks of flesh and gobble them up! What an amazing sighting! I never saw anything like this before! Although i always stop and spend a long time observing these extraordinary predators!
Secretary birds are endemic to Sub-Saharan Africa and are the only birds in their genus, Sagittarius (means ‘lancer’ in Latin). Their family name is ‘serpentarius’, which speaks about their specialisation in hunting snakes. They weigh up to 4.5 KG and have wing span of about 7 feet! They occupy a ‘ecological niche’ in Africa, which is filled by Peafowl in South East Asia, Roadrunners in N.America and Seriemas in S.America.
They are very agile in flight but are most comfortable on land…they even run to flee a land predator like a Hyena and are reluctant fliers!
A pair of birds can have a territory of up to 50 square kms and they are known to walk about 32 kms in a day searching for prey! They typically pair for life and build large nests, about 8 feet wide and one foot deep, on low acacia trees dotting the Savannah. Like many charismatic and large raptors of today, they are ‘vulnerable’ in status mainly because of habitat loss.
Each time i am in Masai Mara, i scan the grasslands for these amazing raptors and just love watching them…gracefully patrolling their savannah territories in their inimitable style!