Test all limits in the Nissan Navara
Test all limits in the Nissan Navara

Support for the struggling secretarybird

Often described as a peculiar looking bird, with the body of an eagle and the legs of crane, the Secretarybird is a treat to spot – especially if you’re fortunate enough to witness their elaborate mating ritual. However, writes BirdLife South Africa’s Raptor and Large Terrestrial Bird Project Manager, Dr Christiaan Willem Brink, these birds are increasingly under threat and already labelled Endangered.

The South African national emblem proudly displays a Secretarybird with spread wings, apparently as a symbol of protection. It is unsurprising that such a wondrous bird is afforded such a place of honour, but there is surprising irony in this symbolism.

Studies indicate that in South Africa, Secretarybird numbers have declined by roughly 75% over the last three decades, clearly showing that we are failing at our responsibility to protect this bird species and the rest of its biodiversity. Similar Secretarybird declines have been reported throughout Africa and the species is now globally Endangered. There is thus a very real risk that these charismatic birds may soon be the next dodo.

Secretarybirds are unique raptors. Rather than hunting on the wing and grabbing prey in powerful talons, they hunt by foot and dispatch prey with powerful stomps and kicks. With these kicks they can deliver a force up to five times that of their body weight (around 4kg), an ability that surely comes in useful for their hardier prey items, such as venomous snakes. Although well known for their snake hunting, the majority of their diet consists of arthropods, specifically grasshoppers. Having a prey base that mainly consists of species that are often considered as pests by landowners, these long-legged marvels are certainly quite handy to have around!

This special species has a wide distribution, but prefers open areas and, while generally found across South Africa, they are especially abundant in our grassland biomes. However, due to human industries such as agriculture and mining, urbanisation, and renewable energy continuously expanding, Secretarybirds have experienced large-scale habitat change and degradation. This is a two-fold blow as it leads to both habitat loss and the introduction of additional threats in the landscape. As such, powerlines, wind turbines and fences have all been recorded as causes of Secretarybird mortalities through collisions or entanglements.

Motivated by the initial uplisting of this species to Vulnerable in 2011, BirdLife South Africa initiated a Secretarybird Conservation Project. The first step in this project was to gain a better understanding of Secretarybird ecology. Despite being so widespread, surprisingly little was known about the birds beyond some basic and limited information on their biology. Taking advantage of modern technological advances, BirdLife South Africa started a long-term tracking study to fill in much of our current knowledge gaps. Initial investigations have led to insights into the dispersal of young individuals and have empowered BirdLife South Africa to make recommendations to developers regarding nesting sites. Further studies are underway to identify their exact habitat requirements and susceptibility to climate change, to help provide management recommendations to landowners.

As Secretarybirds do not stay within the confines of protected areas, this is not a sufficient conservation measure. In South Africa, 79% of land is being employed for agricultural purposes. Much of this is potential good habitat for Secretarybirds, which can easily coexist with certain forms of livestock farming. Because of this, BirdLife South Africa works closely with landowners, especially through farmers within their stewardship programme, to collaboratively find management practices that benefit both farmers and threatened species, such as Secretarybirds that live on their farms. Management practices such as burning regimens and grazing have significant effects on the quality of the veld and consequently the prey populations on which Secretarybirds depend.

Birdlife South Africa also motivates landowners to remove any unnecessary fences, ensure that fences have proper tension, replace top strands with plain, unbarbed wire, and to follow wildlife friendly fence designs for all new fences. This is to help prevent Secretarybirds and other birds from becoming entangled or snagged on fences.

The public can contribute to the Secretarybird Conservation Project by supporting BirdLife South Africa’s research efforts through their citizen science endeavours. To contribute simply report Secretarybird nesting sites and birds entangled in fences via the Secretarybird page on BirdLife South Africa’s website (www.birdlife.org.za). Additionally, you can log birds using the BirdLasser phone app while being signed up to the BirdLife South Africa threatened species cause in the app’s settings. By participating in these activities, you are providing important data that will help guide Secretarybird conservation.

Did you know ?

  • The name Secretarybird is thought to be derived from its quilllike feathers, giving the appearance of a secretary with quill pens tucked behind his/her ear.
  • Its scientific name (Sagittarius serpentarius) means ‘the archer of snakes’ since these birds love to hunt snakes. They use their large wingspan (up to 2m) to distract the snake, while their scaley legs prevent snake bites.
  • Although they can fly, Secretarybirds spend most of the day walking around while foraging, often up to 30km per day!
  • They can kick with a force 5-6 times their body weight and it happens fast, too – in 15 milliseconds the foot goes from still to making contact!
  • Secretarybirds mate for life and often use the same nestyear after year.

About Birdlife South Africa

BirdLife South Africa strives to conserve birds, their habitats and biodiversity through scientifically based programmes, through supporting the sustainable and equitable use of natural resources and by encouraging people to enjoy and value nature.

Make an online donation to help BirdLife South Africa conserve our country’s birds and their habitats. Donations to BirdLife South Africa may contribute to your B-BBEE scorecard as we are fully SED compliant in terms of the B-BBEE Act. As a registered Public Benefit Organisation (No. 930004518), the organisation is authorised to issue 18A tax certificates where applicable.

CONTACT: +27 11 789 1122 | info@birdlife.org.za | www.birdlife.org.za

Kruger Birding & Wildlife Challenge

Don’t miss the Kruger Birding & Wildlife Challenge, a fun fundraiser for the conservation of one of the world’s rarest birds, the Critically Endangered White-winged Flufftail. The week-long event takes place from 12 to 19 February 2023 and is jointly hosted by BirdLife South Africa and Rockjumper Birding Tours.

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