From courtship to chicks: Secretarybirds in the Overberg

Love is in the air right now – especially for the Overberg’s Secretarybirds. 

If you see a pair of Secretarybirds (Sagittarius serpentarius) walking across our open grasslands and shrublands now, it’s likely their courtship is well under way. This is an important time for these majestic birds, which are listed as Vulnerable both in South Africa and internationally.

How do you know whether they’re pairing up?

Secretarybirds court each other during notable flight displays. They soar together near their nesting site, while making croaking calls. And they also perform undulating displays in the air close to the nest, flying up and down. During this pendulum flight, you could see one bird dive at the other with its feet outstretched. The mate answers this move by presenting its claws.

They nest on top of a tree. You could see a Secretarybird ‘greet’ its mate when it returns to the nest, through an up-down bowing display.

They also don’t take kindly to intruders close to their nest.

These powerful birds will open their wings above their back while on the ground. And they will jump on the intruder and strike downwards with their feet, delivering blows up to five times their own body weight, if they overtake the intruder.

The female will now lay between one and two eggs (usually one) – and they will incubate the eggs for between 40 and 46 days.

Chicks are usually a greyish-white colour when they hatch – and will over the next 76 days develop their characteristic colours and become fully feathered.

They can feed themselves by six weeks. But only after 105 days do they start hunting for themselves (although still relying a little on their parents for food). By 130 days, they are fully grown – and ready to continue the cycle.

Why do we care about these birds in the Overberg?

Secretarybird numbers are declining across South Africa (and other African countries). And it’s all at the hands of human activities. Intensive crop farming, overgrazing, growing urban settlements, collisions with fence lines or powerlines, as well as the rapid growth of invasive alien plants are all creating a dismal picture for this species.

In the Overberg, we offer habitat that suits the Secretarybird well. But we must protect this habitat. That’s why the OCG partners with many conservation ventures that are actively looking at protecting our habitat, such as the Nuwejaars Wetlands Special Management Area, the Overberg Renosterveld Conservation Trust, the Grootbos Foundation, Fynbos Trust, and many more organisations.

More on the Secretarybird.

Sources: BirdLife South Africa (Bird of the Year 2019: Secretarybird info sheets)

Images: LoveGreen Communications and Sharon Brink