Secretary birds are often associated with big game reserves, but they are actually very widespread. Almost any open country will do, the Drakensberg included. A typical territory size is about ten square kilometres. The Cavern has a resident pair, often to be seen striding purposefully on the hillside leading to Camel’s Hump. They are looking for small prey, usually grasshoppers and other goggas. Secretary birds sometimes kick at thick grass clumps trying to flush out little animals hiding there. Snakes are caught less often than popular accounts suggest. Another myth to be dispelled is that they get their name from the long straggly feathers at the back of the head. These do indeed resemble the quill pens used by Victorian secretaries, and which might have been stored behind the ear. But the real origin of the name is a corruption of its ancient Arabic name.

Secretary birds don’t fly very often, but are very graceful in the air, soaring with ease, legs stretched out backwards. They certainly need to fly to reach the nest which is always located on the top of a large flat-topped tree. The nest is a platform of dry sticks, the smallest, but still looking most uncomfortable, in the hollow in the centre. Unlike nearly all other large birds of prey the clutch size is three, with all three chicks receiving equal attention, so that all can fledge. Another curiosity is that the structure of the eggshell differs from that of other raptors. This, the large clutch size, and the striding foraging style have led to suggestions of a distant relationship with storks.

David Johnson

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