Skip to main content
sdzglibrarybanner San Diego Zoo Global Library

Secretary Bird (Sagittarius serpentarius) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomic History & Nomenclature

A unique bird

  • Sole species of the family Sagittariidae
  • Most recent DNA study (Hackett 2008) supports strong morphological, behavioral and molecular affinities with Falconiformes, especially hawks and eagles.

Common names

  • May be derived from the Arabic word for hunter and hawk (saqr-et-tair).
  • English: Secretarybird, Secretary Bird
  • French: Messager sagittaire, Messager serpentaire
  • Spanish: Secretario bley

Local names

  • "He goat of the plains" by some East African tribes

Evolutionary History

  • Diurnal birds of prey are the Secretarybird's closest relatives.
  • Proposed relationships to seriemas (Cariamidae), cranes (Gruidae), or bustards (Otididae) is likely to be morphological adaptation to a terrestrial lifestyle for these groups of birds.
  • Fossil remains of two relatives from Oligocene and early Miocene of France
  • A third fossil bird from 10 million year-old Nebraska rocks has been called the "false secretarybird" since its similarity to the modern Secretarybird is believed to be due to convergence rather than a close genetic relationship.

Cultural History




Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Aves

Order: Accipitriformes

Family: Sagittariidae

Genus: Sagittarius

Species: Sagittarius serpentarius (Secretarybird)

Describer (Date):
J. F. Miller (1779) Falco serpentarius
Herman (1783) Sagittarius serpentarius

Classification according to Birds of the World: A Checklist (Clements 2007)

Page Citations

Brown (1972)
Clements (2007)
Dickinson (2003)
Kemp (1994)
Hackett (2008)
Steyn (1982)
Tarboton (1990)

SDZG Library Links