U.S. Coin Price Guide

Coin Collecting

Buy Coin Supplies

Secretary Bird in South African Coat of Arms
By Dennis Rainey

In my opinion, one of the world's most interesting birds is one I have never seen alive, only figures and photos in guide books. If observed at a distance, it is said to resemble a crane, likely a blue crane in South Africa, and its head could remind one of an eagle's head with hooked beak. It is neither a crane nor eagle, but it is an odd-appearing raptor belonging to the Order Falconiformes and its own family - Sagittariidae. Give up? It's the secretary bird (Sagittarius serpentarius).

How did it get this common name? One theory has it that its crest of long black-tipped feathers extending from the back if its head reminded someone of the quill pens that 19th century secretaries stuck in their wigs or behind their ears. Also, it may come from arrows extending from an archer's quiver. Another theory is that it comes from the Arabic "saqr-et-tair" that means "hunter-bird," and translated in French is "secretaire." The name Sagittarius means an "archer." It refers to the stride of the birds that reminded someone of a crossbow man advancing to shoot. The name serpentarius means feeding on snakes and lizards, which are not its main food.

This raptor is endemic to Africa south of the Sahara Desert and prefers grasslands but also is fond of cereal-crop farmland. It avoids dense forests and true deserts. Its range extends from southern Mauritania eastward to Ethiopia and Somalia and much of southern Africa. It extends over 5,791,532 square miles and may have 100,000 members in its global population. It dwells in most of South Africa, and that nation issued a 2-rand coin in 2006 (KM 374) depicting the species. The coin is the fourth in the South Africa's Birds of Prey series. First in 2003 was African Eagles, second in 2004 was African Owls and third in 2005 was African Vultures.

Observe the South Africa coin photo. The bird stands 3 to 4 feet tall, weighs 2.3 to 9.4 pounds, has a 7-foot wing span, is gray (mostly) and white colored, has a long tail with black-tipped central feathers, wings with black flight feathers and a movable crest of black-tipped feathers on back of the head. Its bare face is bright orange on a small head atop a long neck. The legs are very long, longest of any raptor, the upper half with black feathers and lower half with thick heavy scales. The sexes are similar, but females are slightly smaller. They must bend their long legs into a crouch to drink. Although they prefer to spend most of their time on the ground, they are good fliers and frequently fly at great heights. They roost in trees.

Even though the species name, serpentarius, suggests snakes and lizards are its main food, actually ground arthropods, especially beetles, spiders, scorpions, wasps and grasshoppers, and rodents form the bulk of the diet. However, it will eat anything it can kill including hedgehogs, mongooses, hares, young birds and eggs, small amphibians, freshwater crabs and small tortoises. Some snakes killed are venomous such as cobras and adders.

Secretary birds usually hunt in mated pairs by walking along, usually covering 12 to 19 miles a day on average. They kill larger prey by stamping them with their feet but pick up small prey with their beaks and swallow them whole. Some sizable snakes are swallowed whole, but if too large they will tear it into smaller pieces. If the grass is thick they will stamp on the grass to flush prey. Fur, bones, teeth and arthropod exoskeletons are formed into pellets and regurgitated. What a digestive system!

These birds are monogamous, pair for life and breed in all months of the year. They have both aerial and ground courtship displays. A mated pair builds a large flat nest of sticks, grass, dung and other materials atop usually an acacia or other thorny tree that may be added to reaching eight feet across and used in subsequent nestings. One to three eggs are laid and incubated by both sexes for 42 to 46 days. Differing from most raptors (except vultures), these parents feed their babies with regurgitated food instead of tearing bits from prey, but as fledging time nears the parents bring whole larger prey items to the young. Fledging is in 64 to 106 days. Parents may then breed again in less than a month.

The secretary bird's lifespan in the wild is unknown, but the average lifespan in captivity is 18.6 years. They have no negative effects on humans and few predators as adults. Eating insects and rodents is a positive feature. Nestlings and eggs are vulnerable to predation by crows and birds of prey such as eagle owls. Increasing human populations and urbanization may cause secretary birds to decline in some parts of their range, but they are not now in danger. The 2008 International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List has the species as "Least Concern."

Now I want to tell you about South Africa's very interesting coat of arms. This nation is so very proud of its secretary birds that one forms the central image of the coat of arms. This coat of arms was adopted on April 27, 2000. The obverse is shown here and can also be found as KM 318 on page 319 of the Standard Catalog of World Coins, 2001-date.

South Africa's national animal is the springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis), and its national bird is the blue crane (Grus paradisea). Both are on many coins. Its national plant is the giant protea (Proterea cynaroides), which also is on many coins.

Sources for the following are available upon request.

The elements of the coat of arms are organized in two circles placed on top of one another. Starting at the bottom of the lower circle are the letters that make up the motto in a green band - !ke e:/xarra//ke - written in the now extinct Khoisan language of the /Xam people. It translates to "diverse people unite." It is meant to call for the nation to unite in a common sense of belonging and national pride, or "unity in diversity." The characters "!," "/" and "//" represent click sounds when pronouncing the words.

Extending upward at either end of the green band are pairs of elephant tusks tan in color. These symbolize strength, wisdom, moderation and eternity.

Just inside the tusks on either side is a single wheat ear symbolizing fertility, growth, the development of the potential, the nourishment of people and the agricultural aspects of the earth.

The tusks and wheat ears frame a shield in the shape of a drum. Within the shield are two human figures black in color. They are derived from the famous Linton Stone panel, a South African Rock Art by the Khoisan, who are oldest known peoples of South Africa. The figures are facing each other in greeting and unity. They also represent collective humanity.

Next are a black crossed spear and knobkierie (a fighting stick with a knob on one end) that are dual symbols of defense and authority. These also form the powerful legs of the secretary bird. The two are lying down to symbolize peace.

Next is the giant protea in green, gold, black and red. It is a symbol of South Africa's beauty and "the flowering potential of the nation in pursuit of the African Renaissance and also symbolizes the holistic integration of forces that grow from the earth, nurtured from above." Its gold petals represent crafts of South Africa, and the flower forms the chest of the secretary bird.

The secretary bird in flight is representative of growth and speed. It is the equivalent of the lion on earth. Its head feathers form a crown to its strong and vigilant head. This powerful bird's legs, the spear and knobkierie, are used to hunt snakes, symbolizing protection of South Africa from enemies. It is also an emblem of divine majesty with its uplifted wings indicating the rising of South Africa, while at the same time rendering protection. "It is depicted in gold, which symbolizes its association with the sun and the highest power."

The orange rising sun means "brightness and splendor," the rebirth, knowledge and will power. "It is the symbol of the source of life, of light and the ultimate wholeness of Humanity."

The combination of the lower and higher circles indicate infinity and rebirth of the spirit of South Africa. Moving upward along the path from the motto, through the tusks to the horizon from which the sun rises forms the shape of the "cosmic" egg from which the secretary bird rises. Does anyone question the importance of the secretary-bird to the citizens of South Africa? I do not!

If interested, bring up the PDF "A Coat of Arms Identity Manual" at www.gcis.gov.za/services/govt/corpid.pdf.


? 1992-2018 DC2NET?, Inc. All Rights Reserved