A secretarybird with wings outspread and crowned by a stylised rising sun, tops the South African national Coat of Arms. The light, energy and splendour of the sun signifying the rebirth of every day at sunrise, and the soaring flight and power of the secretarybird are intended to inspire confidence and evoke potency.

The secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius) is a most distinctive raptor. It has a large eagle-like head and powerful legs. In flight it can soar high like many raptors, but it hunts on the ground walking long distances (typically about 30 km a day) across open plains and grasslands.   

This secretarybird shows a high level of concentration as it walks through short grasses in search of food in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana

Secretarybirds feed on a variety of small prey, including insects and spiders, birds and their eggs, small mammals such as rodents, amphibians, and reptiles including skinks and small tortoises and also snakes. Contrary to popular belief, snakes do not form the major part of their diet, although they do kill and eat snakes on occasion.  When hunting larger or more dangerous prey animals, secretarybirds strike them down and trample them using their powerful legs. It is not true that secretarybirds are immune to snake venom.

The South African national coat of arms, which is topped by the rising sun between the outstretched wings of a secretarybird, also includes within its oval shape a protea flower combined in a diamond shape, a spear and knobkierie that are lying down symbolising peace and also representing the legs of the secretarybird, human figures (derived from the Linton Panel rock painting) greeting in an act of unity, depicted on a shield that in part signifies protection, framed by ears of wheat and two pairs of elephant tusks. The motto !ke e: /xarra //ke (in the Khoisan language of the /Xam people) literally means ‘diverse people unite’. The coat of arms was launched on Freedom Day, 27 April 2000.

For more on the design and symbolism of the national Coat or Arms see https://www.gov.za/about-sa/national-coat-arms

Secretarybirds may be seen foraging alone, more often in pairs and also in small family groups. The male and the female are similar, with the male being a little larger. Pairs are monogamous and it is thought that they partner for life. Here a pair is striding out on the hunt early one morning in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve

Secretarybirds are endemic to much of sub-Saharan Africa occurring particularly in savanna and grassland habitats as well as in semi-desert shrublands and sometimes on agricultural lands where it can be beneficial as a ‘pest controller’. Despite this potential benefit to humans, sadly, in all countries where they occur, numbers are declining rapidly and in the latest global conservation assessment in April 2020 secretarybirds are listed as Endangered in the IUCN Red List.

Threats include loss of habitat as land is converted to residential and commercial development. In agriculture areas, excessive burning of grasslands and intensive grazing by livestock also impacts negatively on the ability of secretarybirds to survive. Other factors contributing to declining numbers of secretarybirds include hunting, poisoning of waterholes, trapping for the pet trade, toxic effects of pesticide use, birds colliding with fences and power lines, and increasing levels of drought.

It would seem that conservation areas remain a last hope for the survival of secretarybirds, as they already are for many of the larger raptors.

This secretarybird is showing the characteristic long plumes at the back of the head and the unusual tail. The long and powerful legs are clad in black ‘breeches’ on the upper legs

It is commonly thought that the English name ‘secretarybird’ is due to the long quill-like feathers at the back of the head, resembling quill pens that a 19th-century European scribe might tuck behind his ear. However, another possibility is that ‘secretarybird’ derives from Arabic saqr-et-tair, which refers to a type of hunting bird (Chittenden et al. 2016: p. 134), but there is no firm consensus on the origin of the English name.

The scientific name also has a complicated history, but suffice to say that Sagittarius serpentarius literally means ‘archer of snakes’. Evidentally, the fact that secretarybirds are cabable of hunting snakes captured the imagination even of taxonomists.

Whatever the origin of the name, the sight of a pair of secretarybirds striding purposefully across open grasslands is unforgettable

And in further reference to the crowning glory of the South African national Coat of Arms, here are some photos taken in conservation areas celebrating the light and life-giving properties of the rising sun.

A bright sun rising over a dry river bed at the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park 

A lioness and two cubs backlit at sunrise at the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

A black-maned Kgalagadi lion enjoying early warmth from the rising sun

Looking across the dry pan at Mpayathutlwa at sunrise at the Mabuasehube Game Reserve in Botwana, which forms part of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

A sunrise at Bosobogolo at Mabuasehube Game Reserve, Botswana

Springbok, some grazing and some gazing in the direction of the rising sun at the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana

Another beautiful sunrise as the day breaks at the Central Kahahari Game Reserve, Botswana

The soft light of dawn and a perching pale chanting goshawk in silhouette at the Mabuasehube Game Reserve, Botswana


BirdLife International. 2021. Species factsheet: Sagittarius serpentarius


Chittenden, Hugh et al. 2016. Roberts Bird Guide: Illustrating nearly 1,000 Species in Southern Africa (2nd edition). Cape Town: Jacana.

SANBI. [n.d.] Secretarybird. South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). Animal of the Week. https://www.sanbi.org/animal-of-the-week/secretarybird/

Posted by Carol