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Get your school involved in the Bird of the Year project

| March 29, 2019 | 0 Comments

One of the most incredible things about birds is that they have been able to diversify into just about every habitat type known to, and even created by, mankind.

Birds such as the Emperor Penguin survive in the freezing Antarctic, while others like the Dune Lark live in the blisteringly hot Kalahari Desert. Not many people realise that there are approximately 10 000 different species of birds that share this planet with us, and their unique beauty, behaviours and histories have captivated and inspired many of us throughout the ages.
The surface of the earth has changed faster in the last 400 years than it has in the previous 400 000 years. Many of these changes have come about through the expansion of the global human population and their development of settlements, industries and wide-scale agriculture.
The Secretarybird: BirdLife SA Bird of the Year 2019
One of the public awareness campaigns that BirdLife South Africa – a registered non-profit, public benefit environmental organisation and currently the only dedicated bird-conservation organisation in South Africa – rolls out each year is the Bird of the Year initiative. The purpose of the Bird of the Year campaign is to raise the profile and awareness around a specific species of South African bird. This year, the charismatic Secretarybird has been selected as the 2019 Bird of the Year.
The Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius) is a bird of prey, also known as a raptor, which is found in the grasslands and open savannas of sub-Saharan Africa. These birds are most famous for their ability to kill venomous snakes; however, their diet more often consists of large locusts, lizards, bird’s eggs and rodents. They stride through the grasslands in search of prey and once it is sighted, they will deliver powerful kicks with a force up to five times their own body weight, with pinpoint accuracy to kill or stun the unsuspecting victim.

Status: Vulnerable
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Secretarybird is a threatened species, listed as “Vulnerable” on the global Red Data List with a declining population. These threats are largely driven by large-scale losses of suitable habitat across the region through the expansion of human developments and commercial agriculture. Secretarybirds are also susceptible to collisions with power infrastructure, fence lines and motor vehicles, and have been
known to drown in uncovered reservoirs on farms. A less noticeable threat that is impacting on insect- and rodent-eating birds is that of secondary poisoning: if a bird consumes an insect or rodent that contains pesticides, this can have knock- on effects and poison the bird as well.

Tracking to save the species
BirdLife South Africa’s Terrestrial Bird Conservation Programme started a project on the Secretarybird in 2011 and, to date, has been able to fit tracking devices to 10 juvenile Secretarybirds before they departed from their nests across central South Africa. During their dispersal, the young Secretarybirds are able to travel over 500 km within the first two weeks after leaving their natal territories. Of the 10 birds tracked, at least three were confirmed as being killed through a collision with a powerline, a farm fence and through natural causes.
The next phase in the Secretarybird Project will be to analyse the tracking
data further to understand the specific habitat requirements for these widespread birds and develop meaningful land management guidelines for land owners and reserve managers across South Africa.

BirdLife South Africa extends an invitation to all students
As part of the Bird of the Year campaign, BirdLife South Africa is working in conjunction with the Hans Hoheisen Trust and talented illustrator/educator Chrissie Cloete (Chrissie Can Draw). The three partners will produce numerous educational materials throughout the year aimed at inspiring young learners under the age of 13 to find out more about the birds and their natural habitat. All of these materials – which include lesson plans, games, colouring pages and an educational poster – are free and available for download on the Birdlife South Africa website ( We would like to encourage all primary school educators to make use of these materials, which cover not just the Secretarybird but other previous birds of the year as well and will open up new, exciting topics for discussion among young learners.

Melissa Whitecross is a threatened species project manager at BirdLife South Africa To get in touch with her, please e-mail To read a longer version of this article, please visit: or

Category: Autumn 2019

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