Africa, Tanzania, Serengeti; The Secretary Bird

Please consider all photographs as copyrighted and contact me for permission to use them. Thank you, DEC.

Walking with measured pace over the short grass plains of the Serengeti (and Maasai Mara) the Secretary Bird simply exudes elegance and style. It is large, softly gray, with long legs, long tail, and an array of disheveled feather erupting from its ferociously beaked head. The long legs are half pale pinkish-red skin drawn tightly over bone and half intensely black pantaloons. The Secretary Bird is an icon bird of East Africa and one that is quite unexpectedly carnivorous when watched closely.

But before looking at the Secretary Bird more closely I will point out two other large birds of the grasslands; the Common Ostrich and the Kori Bustard. 

The ostrich comes in two forms, often but not always, referred to as two species. There is the Somali Ostrich found in East Africa north of the equator (Kenya) and the Common Ostrich found through most of Kenya and Tanzania south of the equator. The equator is no real barrier but there are a few species that are found only north of the equator (gerenuk, reticulated giraffe, and Somali Ostrich) for some undefined reason. The Common Ostrich can be eight feet tall at the head and has a sexual dimorphism with gray-brown females and black males. They are very mobile yet have the unbirdlike presence of only two toes on each foot. The more northern Somali Ostrich has neck skin that is quite blue; compare this to the pinkie red neck skin of the Common Ostrich.
Another large grassland bird of East Africa is the Kori Bustard. Bustards are represented in East Africa by six species but the one most restricted to grasslands, and the largest and most often seen, is the Kori Bustard. From head to tail they can measure about 4′ and they are quite heavy. They can and do fly, showing a banded tail and light wing patches when soaring. Turkeys, swans, condors and pelicans are the other “heaviest” birds to fly. The Kori Bustard male can create a large whitish “muff” of neck feathers and great white patch/plume of undertail feathers to display his interest and availability to mating. On the short grass savannas this display can be seen a mile away.

There are also many herons, cranes, spoonbills, and storks scattered over the great grasslands of this region. But the Secretary Bird is really at home here – many of the others are seasonal and often weather dependent. The Secretary Bird has often been classified as a “raptor” and is sometimes called the “eagle of the savannas”. Its current taxonomy has it as the only member of a taxonomical family called Sagittariidae. Aside from its confident carriage and royal demeanor on the grasslands it is best known for a loose array of head feathers that look like the quill pens that clerks and secretaries stuck in their hair and wigs in the 19th century. It was named in an era when those writing quills were used, well before ballpoint pens and graphite pencils. But, they are hunters and the following images will confirm that. They are known for finding snakes and pummeling them with a “fisted” foot. However I have never seen them eat anything except large insects and occasionally (twice really) kill and devour a Savanna Hare – a rather large rabbit.

Walking, striding, pacing, and looking for prey is what they do most of the day. They can fly with the long tail and legs very evident. When they nest they build a large nest on the top of a substantial shrub of bush or small tree. 
secretary bird – Version 2
The Secretary Bird is not chunky like a turkey or the bustards. It has a smallish head, long thin legs, lots of tail, and a rather small body. The face color is yellow, reddish, or orange and the bill is usually gray or even pinkish gray.
TZ 2017 secrtarybird
In this instance one of the two Secretary Birds found and pummeled (the best word for certain) a Savanna Hare. The second bird, shown above with dinner, took the hare from the paler bird and proceeded to tear it apart eating large pieces one after the other. Most African bird books say that the younger birds are duller (which I read as darker) than the adults. As the original bird was pale and this bird is darker I can only surmise that this bird is a very hungry teenager who took the food from the parent bird. If this is true it is quite likely that this younger bird is just about full grown and hanging around the parents for free food. That sort of behavior, in all sorts of animals from lions to birds to elephants, gets the youngster kicked out of the territory and sent off to fend for itself.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: