Secretarybird Sagittarius serpentarius


Justification of Red List Category
This species is classified as Vulnerable because recent evidence from across its range suggests that its population is experiencing a rapid decline, probably owing to habitat degradation, disturbance, hunting and capture for trade.

Population justification
Although the species occurs across a vast range, surveyed densities suggest that the total population size does not exceed a five-figure number.

Trend justification
Ad-hoc records, localised surveys and anecdotal observations indicate apparent declines in many parts of the species's range (Baker et al. 2011), in particular in South Africa where reporting rates decreased by at least 60% of quarter degree grid cells used in Southern African Bird Atlas Projects (Hofmeyr et al. 2014). On the basis of this evidence the species is suspected to be undergoing a rapid decline overall.

Distribution and population

Sagittarius serpentarius occurs in sub-Saharan Africa, from southern Mauritania, Senegal, The Gambia and northern Guinea eastwards, north of the forest zone, through southern Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin, southern areas of Niger, ChadSudan, South Sudan and northern parts of Nigeria, Cameroon and the Central African Republic, to Ethiopia and north-western Somalia, and south through eastern areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, to southern Africa, including Angola, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and South Africa. It is variably described as common to rare (only 10 pairs or less in Waza-Logone west, Cameroon [J. Brouwer in litt. 2012]) and localised, and is sedentary in some parts of its range and nomadic in others (Ferguson-Lees and Christie 2001). Ad-hoc records, localised surveys and anecdotal observations indicate an apparent decline in many parts of the species's range, with some of the strongest evidence suggesting rapid declines in Tanzania since the late 1990s and in South Africa between 1987-1991 and 2007-2010 (Baker et al. 2011).


The species inhabits grasslands, ranging from open plains to lightly wooded savanna, but is also found in agricultural areas and sub-desert (Ferguson-Lees and Christie 2001), with up to 50% of recorded individuals in the Fynbos biome in winter being found in transformed environments (Hofmeyr et al. 2014). It ranges from sea-level to 3,000 m. Juveniles can move a long way after leaving their nest site, but will return to their natal area (Retief and Smit-Robinson 2014). A variety of prey is consumed, primarily insects and rodents, but also other mammals, lizards, snakes, eggs, young birds and amphibians. Breeding occurs throughout the year and the species typically nests in a flat-topped Acacia or other thorny tree, where it constructs a flattened stick structure (Ferguson-Lees and Christie 2001).


Although the species may benefit from deforestation, such positive effects may be outweighed by the negative impacts of spreading cultivation and urbanisation (Ferguson-Lees and Christie 2001). The excessive burning of grasslands may suppress populations of prey species, whilst the intensive grazing of livestock is also probably degrading otherwise suitable habitat (Baker et al. 2011). Disturbance by humans, probably most often herders, is likely to negatively affect breeding. The species is captured and traded in apparently small numbers; however, it is unknown how many die in captivity and transit. Direct hunting and nest-raiding for other uses and indiscriminate poisoning at waterholes are also potential threats. These human-induced threats may compound the effects of severe droughts in some areas (Baker et al. 2011).

Conservation actions

Conservation Actions Underway
CITES Appendix II. It occurs in a number of national parks and other protected areas across its large range.

Conservation Actions Proposed
Initiate a coordinated continent-wide monitoring programme to obtain an up-to-date population estimate and track the species's trends. In areas where the species is declining, raise awareness of threats amongst local people, particularly livestock herders. Monitor and tackle the capture and trade of the species.


A very large and distinctive terrestrial raptor, which stands c.1.2 m tall (Ferguson-Lees and Christie 2001). It is grey, whitish and black in all plumages, with small bill and head, bare face, relatively long neck, exceptionally long, bare legs, and long graduated tail with greatly elongated central rectrices. It has a distinctive crest of black-tipped spatulate feathers (Ferguson-Lees and Christie 2001).


Text account compilers
Butchart, S., Ekstrom, J., Symes, A., Taylor, J., Westrip, J.

Brouwer, J.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2020) Species factsheet: Sagittarius serpentarius. Downloaded from on 04/12/2020. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2020) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from on 04/12/2020.