Death in the long grass


Grab, toss, gulp! Grab, toss, gulp! Grab, toss, gulp! Plucked in quick succession from their nest in a low bush, three quelea chicks meet a quick and gruesome fate. Chase, stamp, gulp! With a little more effort – but no more ceremony – a young scrub hare goes the same way.

Such is the fate of numerous grassland creatures that find themselves in the path of a secretary bird. This extraordinary raptor may be known for its snake-killing prowess but many other animals also make the menu, as these two incidents – both of which I witnessed in South Africa’s Kruger Park – attest. Even cheetah cubs. And it is not a pleasant fate: the bird uses specially toughened feet to stamp its prey to death, dancing around its victim with wings extended for balance. With smaller prey, the hooked bill can be just as brutally effective.

Opinions differ on how the secretary bird got its name. It is often attributed to the crest of long black feathers recalling the quill pens that secretaries once tucked behind their ears. Alternatively, it may derive from a French corruption of the Arabic saqr-el-tair, which means ‘hunter bird’. Either way, scientists agree that this species, which is endemic to sub-Saharan Africa, belongs in a family all its own: the Sagittariidae.

There is certainly no mistaking a secretary bird. No other bird stands nearly a metre tall and boasts both the hooked bill of an eagle and the long legs of a crane. Use your binoculars and you can admire in close-up that two-tone plumage of black and smoky grey, with smart black ‘stockings’ and long central tail feathers that project distinctly in flight.

And yes, secretary birds do fly. Admittedly, you are more likely to see one on terra firma, stalking the savannah. But they may also extend their broad wings to soar high on thermals during courtship displays – or simply to return to their nest in the top of a broad-crowned acacia after a day spent wandering about, stamping on things.

Spot one secretary bird and you’ll invariably find another nearby. These birds pair for life and generally forage close together. The female lays two to three eggs in the pair’s huge stick nest, and both birds work together in raising their young. Once out of the nest, the fledglings immediately join their parents on hunting expeditions to learn the skills they’ll need to survive on their own.

Secretary birds occur from Somalia and Mauritania south to South Africa’s Cape. Your best chance of spotting one is in a reserve, which offers both protection and prey, but farmland can also be good if it supports abundant rodents and reptiles. And if you can’t find one out in the bush, simply train your binoculars on the Sudanese presidential flag or the South African coat of arms. Both feature the celebrated snake stamper in all its heraldic glory.

(Image by Mike Unwin)

To get the best out of your wildlife or safari experience, Travel Africa encourages the use of a good quality binocular. To further enhance the experience and capture great memories, take an iPhone adapter to connect your iPhone to your binocular.

This column is sponsored by Swarovski Optik, the premier range of optics for wildlife in glorious close-up. To see their full range visit

Mike Unwin is an award-winning travel writer and author who has an insatiable fascination with wildlife and animal behaviour.