Beyond doubt the most remarkable, not to say anomalous, member of this group is the so-called Secretary-Bird (Gypogeranus serpentarius) of South Africa. It stands nearly four feet high, having very long but strong legs, and when seen stalking about might be mistaken at a little distance for a Heron or Crane, but a closer view discloses the unmistakable raptorial characters. It is light gray in color, with white streaks on the sides of the head and throat, while the wings,rump, thighs, and abdomen are black, the breast and the tail-coverts white, and the long tail black at base, then paling into gray, and tipped with white, the two central feathers bluish gray. The bird has long and strong wings, but they are only used when pressed, as it prefers to escape by running, which it does with great swiftness. It takes its name from the series of long black or gray plumes which hang loosely and in pairs from the back of the head, these being likened to a bunch of quills stuck behind a clerk’s ear. Their principal food consists of frogs, toads, and insects, and they are also very fond of snakes. The stomach of one examined by Le Vaillant contained “eleven rather large lizards, eleven small tortoises, a great number of insects, mostly entire, and three snakes as thick as a man’s arm.” The manner of capturing snakes is interesting. They incite the snake to strike, and then either avoid the blow by springing aside or in to the air or even receiving the blow on the stiff feathers of the wing, thus knocking the reptile down, when they spring on it. If the Secretary does not succeed in stunning it in this manner, he watches a chance, grasps the snake near the head, and flies to a considerable height, letting it fall on the hard ground. He then proceeds to swallow it.
The nest is said to be a bulky affair placed on a tree, or, when this is not available, on a bush. The eggs, two, or sometimes three, in number, are dull white, spotted with rust color at the obtuse end. “The young remain in the nest for a long while, and even when four months old are unable to stand upright.”
The Secretary-Bird is frequently domesticated by the Cape farmers, and is said to make an interesting as well as useful pet, destroying many noxious insects, snakes, and other “vermin.” One of the drawbacks in keeping it as a pet is its propensity for destroying poultry.
According to Count Salvadori the Secretary-Bird of the Soudan is distinct from the South African bird, but this view is not universally accepted.