What a magnificent sight! Driving along the road near Caledon Gardens recently, clearly visible against a deep blue sunny sky, was a large bird flying with his long legs stretched out behind and his neck and head stretched out in front. We identified him as a secretary bird; it circled a few times then came into land in the grass nearby. It was, indeed, the ‘majestic hunter of the plains’, who promptly, majestically, strode about hunting for food.

The Secretary Bird {Roberts 118} is perhaps the most distinctive bird of the veld which everyone will recognise with his long legs and huge grey body, yellow patch around the eyes; black breeches, long tail and pronounced quills behind his head. These quills have given the bird its name since they resemble the writing quills, which secretaries in bygone times stuck behind their ears protruding backwards! The other suggestion is that the name is a French corruption of the Arabic word saqr-et-tair meaning hunter bird”: for that is what the bird is. Secretary Birds are classed as raptors, having strong hooked beaks to capture prey, and long legs with tough feet, which they use to ‘club their prey. One always associated the Secretary Bird with the ability to kill and eat snakes, even poisonous ones. This is so. However, the bird will feed on almost anything it is able to overpower: insects, rodents, eggs of ground nesting birds. It is estimated that they may walk 20 or 30 km’s a day in search of food.

Although not commonly seen around Clarens, they do occur here: as they do in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa except heavily forested and desert areas. They like the open grassland and bush-covered veld. Secretary Birds build their nests on top of trees.

The National Bird of South Africa is the Blue Crane [Roberts 208]: yet it is a Secretary Bird, which appears above the Protea on the South African Coat-of-Arms unveiled on 27 April 2000. Why?

“The Secretary Bird, characterized in flight, is the natural consequence of growth and speed. It is a powerful bird whose legs, depicted as the spear and knob-kierie, serves it well in its hunt for snakes symbolizing protection of the nation against its enemies. It is a messenger of the heavens and conducts its grace upon the earth; in this sense, it is a symbol of divine majesty. Its uplifted wings are an emblem of the ascendance of the nation, while simultaneously offering its protection”

The Secretary Bird also appears on the Sudanese Coat-of-Arms, References Roberts Birds of Southern Africa, Culna Magazine of the National Museum, Bloemfontein, www.crwflags.com

Author: Craig Walters

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