Africa and Asia


Woodland, savanna, and steppe

Crazy name

The secretary bird’s English name was once thought to come from the 1800s, when Europeans first spotted these birds. Back then, male secretaries wore gray tailcoats and dark knee-length pants. They also used goose-quill pens that they carried behind their ears. This long-legged bird shares many of these same physical features: long, dark quills at the back of the head; long, gray wing and tail feathers that resemble a tailcoat; and black feathers that go midway down the legs like short pants. It's fun to imagine how the two "secretaries" compare!

Thanks, I'd rather walk

Secretary birds are distantly related to buzzards, vultures, harriers, and kites. But unlike their raptor cousins, secretary birds spend most of their time on the ground. Native to Africa, they are found south of the Sahara Desert, from Senegal east to Somalia and south to South Africa. Standing over four feet tall, the elegant birds cruise through grasses on long legs while looking for a bite to eat. Secretary birds prefer savannas with scattered acacia trees and short grasses where they can easily see while strolling.

But can they fly? Of course! They may spend their days on the ground, but secretary birds are good fliers and nest and roost high up in acacia trees at night. In flight, their long legs trail behind them in the air.

The secretary bird’s taxonomic name, Sagittarius serpentarius, means “the archer of snakes.” The bird is famous for its snake-hunting abilities.
Two countries use the secretary bird on their national coat of arms: Sudan and South Africa.
The secretary bird is also known as the long-legged marching eagle for the way it walks through the grass while hunting.
The secretary bird has the longest legs of any bird of prey.
Secretary birds have heavy scales on the lower part of their legs that may protect them from unseen predators while walking through tall grass.

The San Diego Zoo’s first secretary birds arrived in 1939. At that time, no secretary birds had bred in any zoo facility. It was thought perhaps zoos did not have enough room to give the birds, which perform aerial courtship rituals. In 1971, the San Diego County Council of Camp Fire Girls raised money to fund the purchase of a pair of the birds for the fledgling San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

In 2002, a secretary bird pair at the Safari Park’s off-exhibit Bird Breeding Complex, housed in a large flight aviary with several other bird species, showed an interest in breeding. The pair was seen carrying nesting material to a tree, and before long, they had a very large nest built of sticks, twigs, and grasses at the top of a tree. After two eggs were laid, the eggs were placed in an incubator for safekeeping, due to the parents’ lack of experience, and replaced with plaster-filled artificial eggs for the parents to incubate. The chicks hatched and were hand reared, and the parents laid more eggs. After three chicks were successfully hand reared, the parents were given a chance to raise their own. After two unsuccessful tries, they succeeded in hatching and raising one chick in 2004, a first for our organization! Since that time, we’ve welcomed 22 more secretary bird chicks. In recent years, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park has been one of only two North American zoos to have successfully raised this species. With our success, we will continue to be able to collaborate with other zoos to help expand the breeding program throughout the US.

Currently, there is a pair of secretary birds in the Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey. They can be seen across from a life-size statue of another long-legged, but now extinct, bird: the Daggett’s eagle, a predator whose hunting behavior was similar to that of the secretary bird’s.

At the Safari Park, we have over a dozen secretary birds, including a pair on exhibit in the Park’s African Outpost, and 2 (Karani and Aren) that are part of our Frequent Flyers bird show.

Karani is a mature female who hatched in 2008; Aren, a young male, hatched in 2012. They can both be seen performing a natural secretary bird behavior: stomping a snake! However, the snake used in the show is made of rubber. We are the only facility in the US to feature trained secretary birds, and there are only an estimated four other trained secretary birds worldwide.

We still have much to learn about these amazing birds and how they raise their young. At this time, the secretary bird is common over much of its range and is protected in many African countries. However, habitat loss and deforestation could affect its future.

In 1968, the species was protected under the Africa Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Its popularity among Africans may help protect the secretary bird in the future, while zoos such as San Diego Zoo Global do our part to increase awareness about the importance of habitat protection.