If you have never heard of a Secretary Bird, you’re in for a treat. Although these largely terrestrial birds of prey are related to falcons, one look at the Secretary Bird should tell you why they belong to their very own family. Long legs, a crest of elegant black feathers and a matching long tail, a bright orange face, and their trademark long eyelashes allow the Secretary Bird to make quite a visual impression. According to legend, the Secretary Bird is so-named because the first Europeans who saw these birds thought that their plumage resembled the tailcoats and knee-length pants worn by secretaries. It is even said that their head feathers resemble the feather quill pens that secretaries often carried behind their ears.
Native to the savannahs of Africa, these grassland birds are perfectly adapted for hunting on the ground, although they do fly as well. Secretary Birds are famous for hunting and eating venomous snakes — so much so that their scientific name, “Sagittarius serpentarius,” means “snake archer.” It is now believed, though, that small mammals, insects, and lizards are just as important to the Secretary Bird’s diet as snakes.
Secretary Birds are striking animals and the fact that they are considered both endangered and declining by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is a heartbreaking reminder of the incredible biodiversity which we stand to lose on this planet if conservation cannot keep up with habitat degradation and other threats to global wildlife. Fortunately, there are reasons to be hopeful about the future of this species.
One of these reasons recently hatched at the San Antonio Zoo in San Antonio, Texas. On Friday, August 25th, the San Antonio Zoo announced on their Twitter page that they have hatched a brand new baby Secretary Bird. This new chick is the first Secretary Bird to be bred at the zoo in over fifteen years. The San Antonio Zoo is one of just twelve facilities across the entire United States that house Secretary Birds, making this a very rare occasion. Bernard and Satinka, the parents of the new addition, have been a pair for the last five years. This is the first time they have produced a chick for the zoo.
While the role of zoos in humanity’s complex relationship with the earth’s wildlife is often controversial, triumphs like this one are a great reminder of the good that zoos can do. Captive breeding programs are important conservation tools that should be used to support and bolster wild populations. One new Secretary Bird may not be enough to heal this embattled species, but when populations dwindle, every individual counts.
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