The African Secretary Bird: Africa’s Killer Queen Bird

The African Secretary Bird is called a ‘killer queen bird’ for a reason, because it is one of the iconic raptor species on the African continent, due to its appearance, but also its behavior.

These birds have an eagle-like body on long stork-like legs giving them incredible height, even among raptors.

Today, we are going to dive deeper into this magnificent bird, let’s go!

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How did the African Secretary Bird get its name?

Their name is as unique as the birds themselves, and there are two theories as to where the name came from.

  • The first is from the Arabic word, “saqretair”, which at the time meant hunter bird. Foreigners who heard this word, couldn’t quite pronounce the word as the Arabs, and corrupted the word to what it is today – secretary.
  • The other theory is that the birds greatly resembled secretaries in the 1800s. These secretaries dressed in grey tailcoats, and dark leggings that were only knee high and they had goose hair quills stuck behind their ears.
    There is much more to Africa’s killer queens than their names, so let’s find out more about the secretary bird.

The Appearance Of The African Secretary Bird

The secretary bird is a tall bird standing at an average of 1.3 m ( 4 ft 3 in), from head to tail they range from 1.1 to 1.5 m ( 3 ft 7 in to 4 ft 11 in).

They also have a wide wingspan, ranging from 1.9 to 2.1 m ( 6 ft 3 into 6 ft 11 in), and their weight ranges from 3.7 to 4.3 kg ( 8.2 to 9 5 lbs).

The crest is made up of black feathers that arise from the nape and the face is usually bare and coloured either red, orange, or yellow.

The crown, the back feathers, the median and lesser wing coverts are blue-grey, while the underwing coverts and underparts range from grey to white.

The primary and secondary flight feathers, scapular, thighs and rump are black, while the upper tail coverts are usually white but barred black in some individuals.

The tail is in the form of a wedge with white tips, two broad black bars at each end of the tail and marbled black and grey at the base.

Where can Secretary Birds be found?

Secretary birds prefer an open country where sighting of prey is easy. Thus, the birds prefer open woodlands, patchy forests, grasslands, scrub and savannahs with a scattering of thorn trees.

They will avoid extremely arid areas, hilly and mountainous regions. They are also attracted to some manmade habitats that are suitable for their hunting methods such as airfields.

Also in case of a wildfire, you’ll find them in large numbers opportunistically hunting animals that have been flushed by the fire. The bird will avoid hot areas, and grasslands with grass over 1 m ( 3 ft 3 in,), but prefer grass that is 0.5 m ( 1 ft 8 in ) high.

This bird is endemic to sub-Saharan Africa and can be found from the West starting in Senegal to the Horn of Africa to the East to South Africa.

The birds are not social and are usually solitary except in mating pairs and usually have a territory that can be up to 50 km2 ( 19 mi2 ), which they will constantly patrol to keep intruders out.


The behavior of the African Secretary Bird.

Secretary birds, just like other birds with expansive wingspans depend on thermals for uplift rather than pure wing-beats to fly.

When they soar, their wingbeats are slow and laborious and without thermal uplifts would tire them quickly. As they fly, they fly with their primary wings spread out to manage turbulent air.

Being blessed with such long legs, secretary birds are exceptional walkers. Studies estimate that the bird walks on average between 20 to 30 km ( 13 to 18 mi) in a single day, which is quite a lot.

They are not social birds, but will sometimes do these walking excursions in pairs.

The birds hunt during the day and will begin the process of hunting and foraging before dawn and will return to their nest just before sunset.

A mating pair will roost at the nest together but will forage separately, and remain within sight of each other.

The secretary bird is so well adapted to terrestrial life that it will fly only when necessary. When in danger, they will first try to outrun their enemy before taking to the skies.

How do they hunt and what do they hunt?

Just like other raptors, these birds are carnivorous with their diet consisting of insects such as grasshoppers, beetles, locusts, wasps, and other invertebrates.

It also includes small vertebrates such as lizards, rodents, snakes, small tortoises, frogs, domestic birds, and other small birds.

They will on occasion hunt larger mammals such as young gazelle, cheetah cubs, polecats, hares, mongoose and hedgehogs.

Unlike other birds of prey that hunt from the air, secretary birds are terrestrial hunters, meaning they hunt on the ground.

The birds catch prey by running them down, catching them and stomping on them with their feet or striking them with the beak.

They have specialized in stomping on the captured prey until either dead or immobilized, a method used mainly on lizards and snakes.

The birds will also stomp on the ground, to scare and flush prey which are usually stomped on and swallowed whole.

The feet are adapted for walking purposes and unlike other birds of prey lack significant grasping capability. So once a prey has been subdued, the bird doesn’t carry it off, rather it swallows it on the spot.

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Breeding of the African Secretary Bird.

The secretary bird forms monogamous pairs and will breed at any time of the year, but usually prefer to do so in the late dry season.

Nest building is a job that is shared between the two partners, and is usually constructed upon tall thorny trees with dense leaf cover at a height between 2.5 and 13 m ( 8 and 40 ft).

The nest itself is relatively flat, made of sticks, and lined with feathers, grass, and dung.

The female will lay between 1 and 3 eggs , in daily intervals. Both parents take part in incubating the eggs, but the female does more particularly at night.

The eggs will take on average 45 days to hatch after being laid. The task of feeding the chicks is also shared between the parents, and in seasons of plenty, all three chicks hatched will survive to adulthood, but in seasons if scarcity at least one chick will die from starvation.

The Conservation and life expectancy of the African Secretary Bird

The Secretary Bird was listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature ( ICUN) in 2016, which was updated to endangered in 2020.

The bird is definitely widespread across sub-Saharan Africa but is thinly distributed in its habitat.

Some of the reasons behind the rapid decline in their numbers are the loss of open habitat the bird prefers.

Loss of habitat arises from the fragmentation of their habitat from roads and manmade structures, overgrazing by human livestock, and the growth of extremely tall vegetation cover.

In the wild Secretary Birds have an estimated lifespan of between 10 and 15 years. In captivity, the lifespan is only marginally better at 19 years.

FAQS on the Secretary Bird

Which bird is the secretary bird most closely related to?

The secretary bird is distinct, has no subspecies, and is in its own class, but shares the same order with other diurnal birds of prey such as hawks, eagles, kites, and vultures.

What is the African name for Secretary Bird?

  • In Swahili, the bird is known as “karani tamba”.
  • The Maasai call it “ ol-enbai nabo” which translates to one arrow.
  • The Xhosa of South Africa call the bird, “inxhanxhosi”.

Related article:

My Final Conclusion.

I hope that you enjoyed this article on the African Secretary bird, but if you have any more questions about this topic or any other, please feel free to ask them down below in the comment section.

You can also join me on one of my social media pages or my cozy Facebook group.

I wish you happy birding!

Kind regards,


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6 thoughts on “The African Secretary Bird: Africa’s Killer Queen Bird”

  1. I love the look of the African Secretary Bird, and living in South Africa we are lucky enough to have seen this bird a number of times in my life, even though they are really shy of humans.

    I learned something new today reading your article, as I never realized that they stomp on their prey and can kill them in that way. 

    • Hi Michel!

      I am glad that you still could learn something from my article and I wish you happy birding 😉

      Kind regards,


  2. Hi there, Lizzy.

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge, expertise and amazing video on the African Secretary Bird. It is a quite a beautiful, regal bird. I am impressed to learn that these exotic birds can be over 4 feet 3, can walk 18 miles a day and can kill snakes. This gives another reason to but Africa and South African on my bucket list.


  3. Thank you for the insightful information and video related to the African Secretary bird. I am very impressed with learning that it is 4 feet 3 inches high or higher, can walk 18 miles a day and can kill huge snakes. This gives more reason to put Africa at the top of my bucket list.


  4. African Fevers,

    Thank you for the insightful information and video related to the African Secretary bird. I am very impressed with learning that it is 4 feet 3 inches high or higher, can walk 18 miles a day and can kill huge snakes. This gives more reason to put Africa at the top of my bucket list.


    • Hi Rachele!

      I hope that you will visit Africa soon, I can tell you that you will definitely enjoy the trip and I wish you happy travels!

      Kind regards,



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