In 2011 BirdLife South Africa launched a scientific project to study the Secretary bird, of which the species status was changed to globally Vulnerable in the same year. Since then we have gained a better understanding of the considerable distances these birds travel after they fledge, as well as the many significant threats they face. Not only are we obtaining new information about their biology, but perhaps one of the most gratifying outcomes of the project is the overwhelming support we have received from a number of donors, landowners, members of the public, other NGOs and government departments.
The Secretary bird Sagittarius serpentarius is a charismatic raptor, quite easy to identify and, with its long legs and characteristic body shape and quill of head feathers, cannot be easily confused with any other bird species.
The Secretary bird can be found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, except for areas covered by forests and true deserts, such as the Namib Desert.
Its preferred habitat is pristine grassland, but it will also avoid areas where the grass cover is too long. Over the last few years, these charismatic birds have been encountered less often than they were in the past. Ad hoc records, localised surveys and anecdotal observations indicate apparent declines in many parts of the species’ range. Evidence suggests that the Secretary bird population is experiencing a rapid decline, not only in South Africa, but also across their range elsewhere in Africa- probably owing to habitat degradation and loss, disturbance, hunting and capture for trade. Consequently this species was up-listed, during 2011, to Vulnerable on the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red Data List.
Similarly, a preliminary analysis of information collected during the two southern African bird atlas projects (http://sabap2.adu.org.za/) shows a considerable reduction in the area this species previously occupied in South Africa.
Possible Reasons for decline:
• Habitat fragmentation and degradation through the spread of agricultural development and commercial forestry;
• Collisions with power lines;
• Collisions with farm fences;
• Excessive burning of grasslands may suppress populations of their prey;
• Intensive grazing by livestock can lead to veld degradation;
• Disturbance by humans is likely to negatively affect breeding;
• Secondary poisoning;
• Capture and trade of small numbers of birds.
Also in 2011 BirdLife South Africa launched a scientific project to assess the reasons for decline and to gain information which will lead to conservation action. The aim of the project is to monitor their daily movements using sophisticated tracking devices and there by gain insights into their biology. Little is known about the life history of this species, and knowledge gained from the tracking of Secretary birds could contribute immensely to our efforts to conserve this species.
The aim of our study is to determine the preferred habitat of Secretary birds and dispersal patterns of juveniles, as well as to identify the threats responsible for the apparent high mortality recorded in Secretary birds.
Devices are fitted to the back of chicks with teflon tape when they are between 7 – 8 weeks old and only when it weighs more than 3 kg. Although a standard method of fitment is employed, the first harness was tested on a captive Secretary bird.
BirdLife South Africa has fitted five Secretary bird chicks with GPS satellite tracking devices and we have obtained very useful information about these birds’ movements to date. The first bird stayed at a nest site in the Free State for about one month and then, after leaving the nest, moved about 100 km in an easterly direction. The second bird moved all the way from Bela Bela, Limpopo, to the Makgadikgadi pans in Botswana, a distance of about 270km. The third bird has moved from its nest near Warden in the Free State to the KwaZulu-Natal coast, thereafter settling near Ixopo for a while and then moving again to
an area about 50 km from its nest site.The fourth and fifth birds will fledge in December and we look forward to receiving their daily stories.
Taemane, a Secretary bird fitted with tracking device sponsored by De Beers, moved from its nest near Warden, down to the KwaZulu-Natal south coast. It later seemed to settle on a farm near Ixopo where it moved between various grassland patches for a number of weeks. However, on 2 November, Taemane left the area and moved westwards towards Lesotho and then further north. By 16 November Taemane was in an area a few kilometres south of Harrismith.
BirdLife South Africa would like to fit tracking devices to more Secretary birds. For this, BirdLife South Africa needs your assistance. Please be on the lookout for Secretary bird nests in the grasslands areas of the Mpumalanga, Free State and North West Provinces. Secretary birds usually nest on thorn trees, but will sometimes also use alien trees. Trees of height of up to 5 m are usually utilised for nesting. The best way of finding a nest is to look out for adult birds standing on top of the tree. If you should find a nesting pair, please contact Ernst Retief at firstname.lastname@example.org or 072 223 2160.
For more information about these birds’ movements and other aspects of the project, visit the BirdLife South Africa Facebook Page.
Tracking devices are not cheap, with a single device costing in the region of R15 000. Apart from the devices themselves, there are many other associated costs, such as camera traps fitted at nests and traveling to remote places to fit the devices to Secretary bird nestlings. We therefore need your support to help us further our study to ultimately conserve the Secretary bird.
The research is made possible through a number of donors and project supporters as well as the BirdLife International Preventing Extinctions Programme, of which Petra Diamond Mines and Airports Company South Africa are the Species Champions.
For more information or on how to get involved contact Dr Hanneline Smit-Robinson at email@example.com or
Ernst Retief at firstname.lastname@example.org