The Secretary Bird

Why is the secretary bird of South Africa called that? Hundreds of years ago, long before ball point pens, typewriters, computer keyboards or electronic styluses for tablets, people wrote with quills on paper.

A quill was a feather with a sharpened point that you dipped in a bottle of ink when you wanted to write something. It was a slow, messy way to write, and took a lot of practice. If you made a mistake, you couldn’t erase it.

Clerks and secretaries, whose job was to write with a quill, would often tuck them into their wigs, which were fashionable at the time.

When Europeans first came to South Africa and saw a large white-and-black meat-eating bird, the crested feathers on the back of their heads reminded them of an office clerk with a quill pen tucked into his wig. That’s where the name secretary bird came from.

It is a fierce hunter, and more like an eagle or hawk in terms of diet and the ability to kill dangerous prey. It will kill cobras, puff adders and other deadly snakes without hesitation.

They will often stamp on a snake first to stun it, then peck behind its head with their sharp pointed beak to kill it. They even have tough scales on their legs to protect them from snake bites.

The secretary bird features prominently on South Africa’s coat of arms.

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