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Renowned as the snake catcher of the African savanna, the secretary bird gets its name from the crest of feathers on its head, as they are said to resemble the quill pens that 19th-century secretaries commonly tucked behind their ears.

I have led 20 natural history safari trips to Africa, starting in 1988, and secretary birds were a common sight in my earlier safaris. It is one of my favorite African birds to watch walking across the savannas of East Africa looking for prey. However, in recent trips I noticed fewer and fewer of them and wondered what was happening to them. So, I decided to find out why this magnificent raptor was disappearing from the African savannas.

The secretary bird is found only in Africa. It occurs in 36 countries south of the Sahara Desert and is thought to be declining alarmingly in most places due to human-induced habitat changes. Development agriculture, human settlements, overgrazing and infrastructure are all thought to be driving the secretary bird out of its natural range.

In fact, the Zoological Society of London lists the secretary bird as an evolutionarily distinct and globally endangered species while the International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies it as “Vulnerable,” with no more than 67,000 individuals left across the continent and declining. Unfortunately, there is little monitoring or management happening and no official protection legislation in place to protect the species.

Here are some interesting facts about the secretary bird and why it’s important to protect it.

The secretary bird is the world’s tallest raptor at 4.5 feet and the only raptor in the world that searches for prey by walking instead of flying or hunting from a perch. In fact, it may walk over 18 miles a day at about 3 miles an hour through grasslands in search of snakes, lizards, rodents and large insects to eat.

Its long, scaly legs provide protection against venomous reptiles and are used for stamping on pretty too big to be sized in its beak, but kills them with its sharp, hooked beak. It is fun to watch them hunting because they may suddenly speed up their walk and stamp their feet to panic hidden prey into making a sudden move revealing their location.

When dispatching prey, the bird will stand slightly back, spread both wings, erect the crest of feathers on the back of its head and fire away with taloned feet. Two very long tail feathers will also drop down. The spread of the wings and feathers act as a false target for venomous creatures, particularly snakes.

Although the birds spend most of their time on the ground, they build and use a stick nest on the tops of thorny acacia or other trees year after year that grow to a size of over 7 feet across as more sticks are added each year, much like our bald eagles do. Adult birds will pair for life like our eagles, so when you see one, you usually see the other nearby. They weigh up to 9 pounds, with the males a bit heavier than females, which is unusual for birds of prey. For example, female bald eagles are larger than males.

Secretary birds can live up to 12 years and are very territorial in defending their nesting area, just like bald eagles do, but eagles can live up to 29 years. The male secretary bird advertises and defends its territory by soaring over it on its 6-foot-plus wings and will severely attack any intruders. The female lays two to three eggs and the young stay in the nest for 65-80 days before they fledge.

Perhaps the most beneficial action that the secretary bird performs for humans is eating rodent and insect pests that feed on crops of local farmers. In fact, they are considered so beneficial that farmers in South Africa keep domesticated birds on their farms to control snakes and rats.

I am hopeful that conservation efforts will be initiated soon to save our world’s tallest raptor from further decline.

The private Nature Education Center in Fifield, operated by Tom and Mary Lou Nicholls, is open seasonally by appointment only. Nicholls can be reached at nicho002@umn.edu.

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