Bird of the Week: Secretary Bird
Excuse me while I scream in fear and delight.
Normally, we here at Bird of the Week HQ try to offer full, thoughtful portraits of the planet’s most notable avian creatures. We talk about their habits, their diets, how they commune (or don’t), how they fly (or don’t)—really, as much as we mere amateur bird appreciators can provide in the way of engaging, useful information. Basically, we try to be tender, loving, and admiring in our coverage. After all, this series is one big ode to birds.
I say all that because this week will be different. It will be different because, in all honesty, most details about today’s inductee are absolutely useless in the face of the one primary fact about this bird, which is that it is essentially the living embodiment of sheer ruthlessness. Sorry, actually, that description doesn’t do it justice. This bird is hardcore as hell, and it is also TERRIFYING. Oh, wait, actually there’s one more fact: It looks fucking cool.
That’s right, we’re talking about….the secretary bird. Behold!!!!!!
Before we break down why the secretary bird is the M3GAN of the bird world, I should also say that while I’ve had the secretary bird on my own personal short list for Bird of the Week for a while, it was also nominated by reader Trey Kreis way back in April of last year. Trey wrote, “They look like they are wearing pants and they stomp on their prey.”
That’s right, I gave the big reveal here to Trey. The secretary bird STOMPS on its PREY until that prey is DEAD. What!!!!
Okay, some other details because I lied and do feel the need to provide a few choice facts: The scientific name for secretary birds is Sagittarius serpentarius which means “the archer of snakes,” as it’s known for hunting the various serpentines among us, even venomous ones (see??? hardcore), and its crest looks a bit like arrows sticking out of a bowman’s quiver. Some accounts suggest that the bird’s generic name comes from the Arabic saqr et-tair, which roughly translates to "hunter bird,” while others posit that “secretary” is simply a mangled pronunciation of the scientific name.
All that said, I’m more inclined to believe that the “secretary” of it all has to to with the fact that the bird’s quill-like plumes are reminiscent of male secretaries in the 18th and 19th centuries, around the time when the bird was first described. Back then, these secretaries would keep goose-quill pens tucked behind their ears or in their hair, and wore dark knee-length pants, closely resembling the bird’s plumage.
Whatever the reason, we must note…
Seriously though, I actually cannot believe how this bird looks. Elegant yet goofy, delicate yet ferocious, regal yet demented. What a legend:
Imagine me speed-reading this part just to get through it as we race back toward the aforementioned savage horror movie details: The secretary bird calls the grasslands and savannas of sub-Saharan Africa home, and is a terrestrial bird of prey that’s distantly related to buzzards and vultures. The secretary bird CAN fly but it largely chooses not to … ugh, so cool. It tends to be about four to five feet tall with an astounding seven foot wingspan and will cover more than 20 miles in a single day of hunting. And as you can see, it’s a WILD looking specimen, with an eagle-like body and crane legs. It’s like a BIRD FRANKENSTEIN.
Speaking of which, remember when I told you that secretary birds stomp on their victims to kill them?? Yeah, let’s finally return to that. These crazy MFers will kill and eat just about anything, from insects to rodents to crabs to lizards and if stomping on it isn’t enough to stun or kill its prey, the secretary bird will repeatedly strike it with its bill. Then, dead or merely incapacitated, the bird will—if small enough—swallow its victim whole.
Are you scared yet?? I have goosebumps and we haven’t even talked about its red-orange-yellow face and gorgeous eyelashes!! Are you kidding me?? Slay. As if these beasts weren’t frightening enough, secretary birds will make sure you know you’re in for a waking nightmare upon approach by spreading their wings and raising the feathered crest at the back of their head. Like, imagine this coming at you with full force:
I’m screaming!! This iconic and blood-curdling behavior is of particular note to scientists, as it might shed light on the ways of prehistoric “terror birds,” which is a term I hadn’t even heard before all this, but oh my god if you’re looking for a rabbit hole to go down today I highly recommend it. These guys might have to be their own entry into Bird of the Week to be honest, I do not care if they’ve been dead for two million years.
I won’t lie to you readers, I was too much of a wuss to finish some of the videos out there featuring secretary bird kills. Does that make me a bad blogger? Probably, but I’ll surrender my dignity if it means I can sleep at night.
This bird will even get in the face of a freaking JACKAL. Come ON:
As is often the case with our beloved Birds of the Week, the secretary bird is also at risk of extinction. It’s been considered endangered since 2020, and while it is a beloved creature (even appearing on the coats of arms of South Africa and the national emblem of Sudan, and once immortalized by ancient Egyptians) its numbers are in decline because of diminishing habitat and agricultural encroachment. For now, we are lucky enough to live among them, and gaze in wonder at their beauty and ferocity. Frankly, I’m glad the secretary bird is raging. Its fury is well-deserved.
Don’t forget, you too can submit a Bird of the Week just like Trey did!! We love your submissions and keep track of them all (see also: last week’s incredible duck entry). Reach out any time at firstname.lastname@example.org and be sure to check out our full list of Bird of the Week entries, of which there are more that 60. Yeah, we freakin’ love birds. See you next time!