Even though the Secretary bird is found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, it holds very special significance to us here in South Africa as it occupies centre spot on our national coat of arms.
This powerful bird is depicted on the badge with wings outstretched, making it an emblem for the ascension of South Africa. The spear and knobkerrie underneath represent the legs of the bird and in the same way that they rely on their strong legs for protection from snakes whilst hunting – the weapons symbolise the protection of the nation from its enemies.
It really is a visually striking bird when you see it for the first time. First of all because it stands around four feet tall and is usually seen walking in pairs in grassland areas searching for prey; secondly you usually notice the set of black quill-like feathers that protrude from the back of the head. From there you start to look at its long legs and how the feathers on them make it seem as if they are wearing black pants. Once you start to look even closer you see the beautiful orange and yellow markings on its face, which make up the finishing touches on this majestic creature.
They spend most of their time walking through grasslands searching for prey and even though they are mostly known for their prowess in catching snakes, they will feed on a host of other things including insects, amphibians, birds and small mammals (I have seen one catch a scrub hare before which was equally impressive and disturbing to watch). They use their strong legs and feet to stamp down hard on whatever it is that they find in the grass and then bend down and pick it up in their beak, sometimes tossing it into the air if it has not been killed, before swallowing it.
The name Secretary bird is also something that catches a lot of people’s attention and there are two main contrasting theories that are often attributed to its origins. The first theory comes from how the 19th century Europeans likened the black crest of feathers to the quill-pens that secretaries used to keep tucked in their hair. But it’s more likely that the name was derived from the Arabic word Saqr-et-tair which when translated means ‘hunter-bird.’
Secretary birds are regarded as being nomadic birds and do not often hang around in an area for prolonged periods of time. So whilst we have gone through periods where sightings have been fairly common, the opposite also holds true. Of late we have been seeing a few individuals in different parts of the reserve and every time we see one perched on top of a tree, we scan very carefully to see if they could be nesting. Regardless, it is always special to see one – not just because of how unique they look – but also because of what they represent for us a country.