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Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Forgotten Red-Listers Blog #1: The Secretarybird

One of the most popular sightings to be had at CCF, is that of a Secretarybird.  They're not particularly common here, but we do have a couple of pairs who seem to persist in the area.

The secretarybird is extremely distinctive and really cannot be mistaken for anything else. It stands up to 1.5m tall with an eagle-like head and weighs up to 5 kg.  They fly well, but generally hunt on the ground, striding across open grasslands while searching for their chosen prey of snakes, including some extremely venomous ones, small mammals (including some carnivores), large insects and other reptiles. Prey is often killed by being stamped on repeatedly by the secretarybird's powerful legs.

A pair will often return to the same tree or bush to lay eggs year after year, and we have identified one such location on the edge of our Big Field.  Each mating can produce up to four eggs, although fewer are more likely.  Aside from the need to nest, the secretarybirds prefer open grasslands and savannas, and will spend most of their time there.  They will sometimes wait on the fringes of a bush-fire and prey on animals flushed out by the flames.

Despite being powerful, charismatic, and present in some 35 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, secretarybirds are nonetheless classed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Redlist.  Their exact numbers are unknown, but believed to be in the five-figure range, and their numbers are definitely decreasing. 

The main cause is habitat loss due to spreading urban areas, and increased farming.  The presence of cattle, and herders, tends to drive the main prey species away.  There is also an illegal trade in live secretarybirds for private collectors, but as yet not enough information exists to establish how significant this is. 

More research is needed on both fronts, to find out exactly what is happening, and hopefully to educate farmers on the damage being done in this respect.  Secretarybirds will not be disappearing in the near future, but there could eerily come a time when they become limited to within the boundaries of National Parks and other protected reserves. 

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