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Secretary Bird: Sagittariidae - Diet

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Secretary birds usually do not fly as they hunt for prey. They often walk along in the tall grass, trying to frighten little animals out of hiding, to then stomp or kick the animals to death. The creatures they kill this way can be moths, grasshoppers, other large insects, and mammals as small as mice or as big as hares and mongooses. Lizards and game birds are also a part of their diet. When they find small insects and eggs, they snatch them with their beaks. The exact diet of secretary birds depends on where they live; locusts and rodents are mostly found in one region, while beetles and lizards are plentiful in another area. When secretary birds see flames, they run toward the fire. They do this because they know that hundreds of small prey animals flee for their lives ahead of the fires, creating a source of food. If the fire comes too close, the secretary birds can always fly off.

Secretary birds stoop to pick up their prey only after it has stopped moving, and when they can, they swallow it whole. Once in a while, they tear the biggest prey to pieces and store it under a bush to eat it later.

MYSTERY NAME

Depending on which book or website you read, you will find different origins of the secretary bird's strange name. Some say the bird got its name from its crest, which looks like the quill pens that old-time secretaries kept handy in their hair. The secretaries could pull out a quill whenever it was time to write something. Another theory is that the name comes from the Arabic words saqu ettair, meaning hunter bird. Others say the bird was named for its croak, which sounds a little something like its name.

Secretary birds are most famous for their ability to kill snakes, even poisonous ones, although snakes are only a small part of their diet. Their long legs are covered with scales that protect them from snakebites. The birds can also shield themselves from bites with their wing feathers. Sometimes they run quickly after snakes to catch them. They kill snakes the same way they kill other animals, by pouncing on them and kicking them, then striking the back of the snake's head with a talon for the killing blow. When swallowed whole, snakes usually take a longer time to go down than most prey, because the birds slowly suck them in.

Secretary bird pairs build nests together. They stomp around on top of a tree or bush until it is flat, and then bring twigs and sticks to make a platform. They line the platform with a bed of dry grass to make a soft place for the eggs and chicks. (© Renee Lynn/Photo Researchers, Inc. Reproduced by permission.)

Because secretary birds swallow most of their prey whole, they have to get rid of the bones, fur, feathers, and scales that they cannot digest. They regurgitate (cough up) these unwanted parts in large pellets. The sausage-shaped pellets can be as long as 4 inches (10 centimeters).


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