Can a bird be punk rock? With a mohawk of feathers down its head, a painted-red face, and a diet that includes cobras, the secretary-bird certainly fits the bill.
A rebellious deviation of evolution, the secretary is so unique that it’s one of just a handful of birds depicted in the Wall of Birds (a 70′ x 40′ mural at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology depicting the 375 million year evolution of birds) that demands classification in its very own family. Its scientific name, Sagittarius serpentarius, means “serpent-bearing archer,” a fitting designation given its arrow-like snake-crushing legs. Though a strong flier, it hunts on foot sometimes covering 20 miles a day.
At four feet tall, with the heavy body of an eagle and the long legs of a crane, the secretary uses its height to scan grasslands and flush out its prey which includes mammals and other birds—in addition to Africa’s most poisonous snakes. There have even been reports of them killing young gazelles.
Crafty hunters, sometimes secretary birds let dinner come to them, standing at the edge of brush fires in wait for fleeing prey. When it does find a meal, the secretary gives chase in a zigzag manner, flapping its wings to dazzle and confuse its victim. It then stomps its quarry in a mosh-pit melee of feather and fur, blood and scale.
One theory is that their name derives from their feathery headdress, which suggests an old-time secretary with a quill pen tucked behind the ear. Another suggests that “secretary” is actually derivative of the Arabic saqr-et-tair or “hunter-bird.”
The latter hypothesis is more reflective of the bird’s true nature, as this is not an animal with the character to do the bidding of others. Found on plains and grasslands throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, the secretary is protected by game laws wherever they exist. A celebrated bird, they are found on both the Sudanese and South African coats of arms.
When complete the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s centennial mural “From So Simple a Beginning: Celebrating the Evolution and Diversity of Birds” will be the only mural in the world showcasing all 243 modern families of birds in one place. Each bird is painted in portraiture, framing the animal in an accurate and recognizable style. “The trick,” says Jane Kim, artist and founder of Ink Dwell, “is to find a way to capture the energy and character of each animal, while staying within those parameters.”
“The secretary is the only bird of prey that hunts on the ground,” says Kim. “Its entire behavior is dictated by the way it hunts, so that seemed important to showcase. In this painting it’s a coiled spring, caught in that moment right before the hunt. The leg is lifting as if stalking and its mouth is open, ready to snap. The head quills are on full display, casting shadows on its neck for depth. Even the back wing feathers are ruffled, in preparation to flush out prey.” In a show of confidence, the apex predator stares its observers straight in the eye.