1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Secretary-bird

SECRETARY-BIRD, a very singular African bird, first accurately made known, from 'an example living in the menagerie of the prince of Orange, in 1769 by A. Vosmaer,[1] in a treatise published simultaneously in Dutch and French, and afterwards included in his collected works issued, under the title of Regnum Animate, in 1804. He was told that at the Cape of Good Hope this bird was known as the “Sagittarius” or Archer, from its striding gait being thought to resemble that of a bowman advancing to shoot, but that this name had been corrupted into that of “Secretarius."


In August 1770 G. Edwards saw an example (apparently alive, and the survivor of a pair which had been brought to England) in the possession of a Mr Raymond near Ilford in Essex; and, being unacquainted with Vosmaer's work, he figured and described it as “of a new genus” in the Philosophical Transactions for the following year (lxi. pp. 55, 56, pl, ii.). In 1776 P. Sonnerat (Voy. Nouv. Guinée, p. 87, pl. 50) again described and figured, but not at all correctly, the species, saying (but no doubt wrongly) that he found it in 1771 in the Philippine Islands. A better representation was given by D'Aubenton in the Planches enluminées (721); in 1780 Buffon (Oiseaux, vii. p. 330) published some additional information derived from Querhoent, saying also that it was to be seen in some English menageries; and the following year J. Latham (Synopsis, i. p. 20, pl. 2) described and figured it from three examples which he had seen alive in England. None of these authors, however, gave the bird a scientific name, and the first conferred upon it seems to have been that of Falco serperztarius, inscribed on a plate bearing date 1779, by John Frederick Miller (Ill. Nat. History, xxviii.), which plate appears also in Shaw's Cimelia Physica (No. 28) and is a misleading caricature. In 1786 Scopoli called it Otis secretaries—thus referring it to the Bustards,[2] and Cuvier in 1798 designated the genus to which it belonged, and of which it still remains the sole representative, Serpentarius. Succeeding systematists have, however, encumbered it with many other names, among which the generic terms Gypogeranus and Ophiotheres, and the specific epithets reptilivorus and cristatus, require mention here.[3] The Secretary-bird is of remarkable appearance, standing nearly 4 ft. in height, the great length of its legs giving it a resemblance to a Crane or a Heron; but unlike those birds its tibiae are feathered all the way down. From the back of the head and the nape hangs, loosely and in pairs, a series of black elongated feathers, capable of erection and dilation in periods of excitement.[4] The skin round the eyes is bare and of an orange colour. The head, neck and upper parts of the body and wing-coverts are bluish grey; but the carpal feathers, including the primaries, are black, as also are the feathers of the vent and tibiae—the last being in some examples tipped with white. The tail-quills are grey for the greater part of their length, then barred with black and tipped with white; but the two middle feathers are more than twice as long as those next to them, and drooping downwards present a very unique appearance.

Its chief prey consists of insects and reptiles, and as a foe to snakes it is held in high esteem; although it is undoubtedly also destructive to young game. It seems to possess a strange partiality for the destruction of snakes, and successfully attacks the most venomous species, striking them with its knobbed wings and kicking forwards at them with its feet, until they are rendered incapable of offence, when it swallows them. The nest is a huge structure, placed in a bush or tree, and in it two white eggs, spotted with rust-colour, are laid. The young remain in the nest for a long while, and even when four months old are unable to stand upright. They are very frequently brought up tame. The Secretary-bird is ound, but not very abundantly and only in some localities, over the greater part of Africa, especially in the south, extending northwards on the west to the Gambia and, in the interior to Khartum.

The systematic position of the genus Serpentarius has long been a matter of discussion, and is still one of much interest, though of late classifiers have been pretty well agreed in placing it in the order Accipitres. Most of them, however, have s own great want of perception by putting it in the family Falconidae. No anatomist can doubt its forming a peculiar famil, Serpentariidae, differing more from the Falconidae than do the Vulturidae; and the fact of A. Milne-Edwards having recognized in the Miocene of the Allier the fossil bone of a species of this genus, S. robustus (Ois. foss. France, ii. pp. 465-468, pl. 186, figs. 1-6), proves that it is an ancient form, one possibly, carrying on a direct and not much modified descent from a generalized orm, whence may have sprung not only the Falconidae but perhaps the progenitors of the Ardeidae and Ciconiidae, as well as the puzzling Cariamidae (Seriema, q.v.).  (A. N.) 

  1. Le Vaillant (Sec. Voy. Afrique, ii. p. 273) truly states that Kolben in 1719 (Caput Bonae Spei hodiernum, p. 182, French version, ii. p. 198) had mentioned this bird under its local name of “Snake-eater" (Slangerwreeter, Dutch translation, i. p. 214); but that author, who was a bad naturalist, thought it was a Pelican and also confounded it with the Spoonbill, which is figured to illustrate his account of it.
  2. Curiously enough, Boddaert in 1783 omitted to give it a scientific name.
  3. The scientific synonymy of the species is given at great length by Drs Finsch and Hartlaub (Vogel Ost-Afrikas, p. 93) and by R. B. Sharpe (Cat. B. Brit. Museum, i. p. 45).
  4. It is from the fancied resemblance of these feathers to the pens which a clerk is supposed to stick above his ear that the bird's name of Secretary is really derived.