This 4-Foot-Tall Eagle Relative Lives on Land Stomps Snakes With Lightning Speed—Here’s What It Is

This 4-Foot-Tall Eagle Relative Lives on Land Stomps Snakes With Lightning Speed—Here’s What It Is
A secretarybird hunts on the ground by stomping its prey, including poisonous snakes. (Illustration by The Epoch Times, Shutterstock)
Michael Wing
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The towering bird Sagittarius serpentarius raises its long, crane-like leg over its distracted slithering prey and strikes with the ferocity and accuracy of the great eagle raptors the rest of its body so resembles.

In less than the blink of an eye, its taloned claws stomp the ground with a great many pounds of impact, breaking the head of its snake victim, making a morning meal for the enormous African bird of prey at sunrise. More commonly called the secretarybird, this very large, mostly landbound raptor is both beautiful and deadly.

It is a gorgeous bird to behold. Great grey feathers cover its body. With wings outstretched, they span nearly 6 feet. Its red-orange face features exquisite doll-like eyes, luscious eyelashes, and theatrical cool-shaded eyelids. Those long legs feature scales that add protection from the fangs of the venomous serpents it hunts.

Secretarybirds hunt snakes, rodents, lizards, and other small prey, using their long legs to stomp them on the ground. (Johan Buchner/Shutterstock)
Secretarybirds hunt snakes, rodents, lizards, and other small prey, using their long legs to stomp them on the ground. (Johan Buchner/Shutterstock)
The dramatic facial features of a secretarybird. (<a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Secretary_Bird_with_open_beak.jpg">Keven Law</a>/<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en">CC BY-SA 2.0</a>)
The dramatic facial features of a secretarybird. (Keven Law/CC BY-SA 2.0)
Secretarybirds are mostly landbound but are capable of flight and are believed to be relatives of hawks and eagles. (Barbara Ash/Shutterstock)
Secretarybirds are mostly landbound but are capable of flight and are believed to be relatives of hawks and eagles. (Barbara Ash/Shutterstock)
A secretarybird makes a meal of a snake. (Mike van Kal/Shutterstock)
A secretarybird makes a meal of a snake. (Mike van Kal/Shutterstock)

But most prominently of all, long darts of black feathers fan out from the back of the secretarybird’s head, forming a distinctive crest. These resemble the feathered arrows splayed out from an archer’s quiver, giving rise to the bird’s most important legend; some say its name was derived from this archer-like appearance.

The origins of the secretarybird’s name are speculative and aren’t agreed upon. One 18th-century naturalist said it was drawn from the bird’s quill-like head feathers’ resembling the male legal assistants of the day, called secretaries, who regularly sported a quill behind the ear in handy fashion and wore grey coats and knee-length black pants.

But others believed the moniker to be a corruption of saqr et-tair, or “falcon bird” in Arabic, though this has been questioned. Others have posited the related term for the bird, secretarius, was a mispronunciation of Sagittarius—named for his archery—or vice versa, thus establishing another link. Hence the name dwells in doubt.

A secretarybird in flight. (<a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sagittarius_serpentarius_(31035947287).jpg">Stephen Temple</a>/<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en">CC BY-SA 2.0</a>)
A secretarybird in flight. (Stephen Temple/CC BY-SA 2.0)
Secretarybirds display a red-orange face and prominent crest of black head feathers. (Michael Potter11/ Shutterstock)
Secretarybirds display a red-orange face and prominent crest of black head feathers. (Michael Potter11/ Shutterstock)
Closeup of a secretarybird's head. (Matthieu Gallet/Shutterstock)
Closeup of a secretarybird's head. (Matthieu Gallet/Shutterstock)
The name secretarybird is thought to derive from the look of an 18th-century legal secretary with a feathered quill behind the ear. (Ksosak/Shutterstock)
The name secretarybird is thought to derive from the look of an 18th-century legal secretary with a feathered quill behind the ear. (Ksosak/Shutterstock)
A secretarybird spreads its wings on the grass. (Andrew Desmond/Shutterstock)
A secretarybird spreads its wings on the grass. (Andrew Desmond/Shutterstock)

Today’s scientists believe secretarybirds to be sisters to ospreys, kites, hawks, and eagles. Despite their bodies looking remarkably like their eagle cousins’ and their capability of flying to great heights, secretarybirds are primarily terrestrial, aided by their towering stature. With crane-like legs, inhabiting grasslands mostly, they are among only two species of raptors that hunt on the ground. Of all raptors, secretarybirds are among the largest, standing just over 4 feet high.

A closeup of a secretarybird shows off its theatrical eyes. (VL Studio/Shutterstock)
A closeup of a secretarybird shows off its theatrical eyes. (VL Studio/Shutterstock)
A secretarybird stretches its wings as a distraction while hunting. (Scooperdigital/Shutterstock)
A secretarybird stretches its wings as a distraction while hunting. (Scooperdigital/Shutterstock)
A secretarybird hunts a green mamba snake. (Ivanov Gleb/Shutterstock)
A secretarybird hunts a green mamba snake. (Ivanov Gleb/Shutterstock)

They are endemic to sub-Saharan Africa, from Senegal to Somalia to South Africa. And within this habitat, they are known to hunt snakes, lizards, frogs, rodents, small tortoises, birds, and even small mammals. Using their wings and tail feathers to distract, they stomp their powerful legs with as much as 45 pounds of force to crush their prey with movement quicker than the blink of an eye—faster than the time snakes need to react. They tear the carcasses apart with short, sharp beaks curved like an eagle’s.

A pair of secretarybirds roosting with a chick. (Robert Harding Video and Lasse Johansson/Shutterstock)
A pair of secretarybirds roosting with a chick. (Robert Harding Video and Lasse Johansson/Shutterstock)
The prominent head crest of a secretarybird. (Kikkia Jackson/Shutterstock)
The prominent head crest of a secretarybird. (Kikkia Jackson/Shutterstock)
A secretarybird dines on a lizard. (Erwin Niemand/Shutterstock)
A secretarybird dines on a lizard. (Erwin Niemand/Shutterstock)
A secretarybird feasts on a lizard. (<a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sagittarius_serpentarius_-Namib-Naukluft_National_Park,_Namibia_-eating-8.jpg">Jean & Nathalie</a>/<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en">CC BY 2.0</a>)
A secretarybird feasts on a lizard. (Jean & Nathalie/CC BY 2.0)

Speaking of the sexes of secretarybirds, males and females look and behave alike, although males tend to sport longer tails, more head feathers, and shorter heads. They perform back-and-forth swinging “pendulum” flights in rituals to attract mates. Although preferring open savannahs to roam, they roost in large acacia trees. Females typically lay clutches of two to three eggs, but only one or two chicks usually manage to stave off starvation to fledge when food is scarce. The pair roost together, forage separately, and feed the young regurgitated remains.

Leaving the nest to hunt at dawn, mates may spend the day pacing and resting aground before stalking down an evening feast. Then the secretarybird will make its short return flight back to the nest at sunset.

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