Sudan: the Secretary bird

Belonging to the Islamic world and being heavily influenced by Egypt, Sudan still has for its own a unique symbol, a bird species whose name is a combination of 2 zodiac signs and its apperance is a combination of 2 different birds.

Location of Sudan (

Theme song:

1. History of Sudan

Sudan is a country belonging to the Arab world in North Africa. Before South Sudan split into an independent nation, the united Sudan was once the largest country in Africa and the Arab world. Located in South of Egypt, Sudan was inevitably influenced by this giant civilization. Right from ancient times, around 1500 BC, Kingdom of Kush (also known as Nubians) had to owe allegiance to the pharaohs and become the gold supply to Egypt. But by 750 BC, the Kush conquered Egypt for themselves and founded the 25th pharaoh dynasty, also known as the dynasty of black pharaohs. In later centuries, while Egypt was declining, Kush became the place that preserved many traditional Egyptian customs, including the construction of pyramids.

The Nubian pyramids in the Eastern part of Khartoum city, Sudan today (
Muhammad Ahmad (

After the fall of Kingdom of Kush, the Nubians established Christian kingdoms until the 6th century, when Islam rose dramatically and spread to Nubia, becoming the dominant cultural factor here. By the 19th century, this place was again conquered by the Egyptians until Mohamad Ahmad, who took the title Mahdi (a Muslim redeemer), conducted a divine uprising that repulsed Egypt and gained independence for Sudan from 1881 to 1885. However, this short-lived kingdom only existed until 1898 when the British came and ruled over both Egypt and Sudan. Sudan offically regained its independence from British rule on Januaray 1st 1956,  then again Sudan’s civil war broke out between the North and the South due to differences in language, religion and political system. As a result, South Sudan broke away and became an independent nation since 2011.

The national symbol of Sudan is clearly depicted on its national emblem today : the Secretary bird.

National emblem of Sudan (

2. Secretary bird in nature

Secretary birds on open savannah (

Secretary bird is a large endemic bird of prey in Africa, they are often found on the vast open grasslands and savannah of the sub-Saharan region. Despite its distinctive long legs and graceful gait, the secretary bird is a close relative of notorious predators in the sky like hawks, eagles, falcons, vultures etc. all belong to the order Accipitriformes. They are classified as a seperate bird family with unique features such as a very large eagle-like body with a long crane-like pair of legs, which increases their height as much as 1.3m. However, they actually only weigh about 4kg and are able to take flight to an altitude of 3000m.  Adult birds often have a featherless red-orange face and predominantly grey plumage with a flattened dark crest, black flight feathers and thighs.

Face and head of secretary bird (

A very interesting fact is that the secretary bird has the scientific name Sagittarius serpentarius, in which “Sagittarius” means “archer”, because their gait was supposedly like an archer and probably because their head plumes are similar to the tails of arrows, thus it has the same name with the astrological sign Sagittarius.  And “Serpentarius” means “snake” because of their outstanding snake-killing ability and thus, it also has the same name with the zodiac sign Serpentarius. These are respectively the 12th and 13th zodiac constellations and when put together, the scientific name of this bird means “the snake-killing archer”.

The bird having a scientific name derived from 2 zodiac signs
The quill pen in 18th century (

The common name of this bird is known as “secretary bird”, which also originates from the interpretation of their long head plumes. They remind the Europeans of their secretaries in the 18th century who usually tucked their quill pen behind their ears. In later time, theirs long legs and eyelashes are also a reminiscent of a beautiful and elegant female secretary. In fact, they have these developed eyelashes is actually to prevent dust from getting into their eyes because they are the only terrestrial bird of prey which means they mostly hunt on the ground. A recent theory suggests that the name “secretary” is a corruption of the Arabicsaqr-et-tair”, meaning either “hawk of the semi-desert“.

The long legs and eyelashes of secretary bird (

Secretary bird is the only bird of prey in order Accipitriformes that catches preys while walking or running. They find food in pairs, stalking throughout their habitat with long strides, run to their prey with their surprising speed and then kill the victim by lauching super strong and fast kicks right into the head. The long legs help the secretary bird get the most powerful kick in the animal world, having the force of 5 times stronger than their own body weight and only happens within 1/10 speed of human’s blink of eye.

Nature uniquely designed for the secretary bird a complete set of weapons to annihilate venomous snakes: in fights, they spread their wings and their long tail feathers to distract snakes from their feet and then launch unexpected kicks; the legs are even covered with hard scales to protect them from deadly bites and their bodies are partially immune to snakes’ venom. They can also step on a snake’s back unexpectedly from the air. These birds have distinctive ways of hunting because their food source are very nimble and quick animals such as snakes, insects and even small mammals like young gazelles and cheetah cubs. In addition to their superior strength, they are also very smart to search for food in brushfires, where they can find free barbecue meals.

A secretary bird hunts snakes (

When the secretary birds fly, they stretch their long legs back and look more like cranes than birds of prey. But they prefer walking and running and can even run very fast and can cover a long distance of about 30km per day to search for food and only fly back to their nest when it starts to get dark. These birds make their nests on acacia trees from grass and animal dung.

A secretary bird in flight (

3. Secretary birds in culture

Secretary bird has been admired and beloved in Africa since ancient times due to its unique appearance as well as its ability to kill poisonous insects and snakes. Archaeologists and ornithologists have found images of this bird in the tomb of Egyptian queen Hatshepsut under the 18th pharaoh dynasty (1473 – 1458 BC), despite the fact that Egypt is not where secretary birds are distributed. These images show tributes that  Egyptian pharaohs received from surrounding vassal states including ebony, gold, myrrh, ivory, leopard skin, animals such as cheetah, giraffe and also the secretary bird. Among them, images of the secretary bird was found much less, which proves that this bird has a very high cultural value in the society of Punt (Sudan today) at that time and among the rarest tributes to the pharaohs.

Image of a secretary bird in the tomb of Queen Hatshepsut (animalogic)
The wall painting in pharaoh’s tomb depicting a scene in which Africans pay tribute (

With its symbolic values in nature and culture, the secretary bird was chosen by the modern Sudan state to its national identity. It is also a native variant at Sudan of the Eagle of Saladin and Hawk of Quraish, symbols that are often chosen to represent countries in the Islam world and and associated with Arab nationalism. The secretary bird officially became the national symbol of Sudan since 1970, it appears on the middle white strip of the presidential flag and seal, on vehicles carrying Sudan president and his family as well as other Sudanese military insignia. The image of a yellow secretary bird has its head to the side with its distinctive crest clearly visible and its wings spread out symbolize the country’s victory and glory.  This proudful symbol, of course, also appears on currency, stamps, seals etc. throughout Sudan.

Presidential flag of Sudan (
Secretary bird on Sudanese currency (
Secretary bird on Sudanese stamp (

Additionally, in South Africa, although it is not the national symbol, the secretary bird still appears on the new national emblem in 2000. The symbolism of this bird is then further expanded when it was considered as the bird of strength and speed, king of birds in Africa, on par with the lion king – king the forest on the ground. Its ability to kill poisonous snakes also symbolizes the country’s protection against enemies. It is the messenger of heaven and was sent by God to Earth to carry out noble missions, in this sense, the secretary bird is also a symbol of divine power with gold color symbolizing the Sun and supreme power. Its wings spread upward to show the rise of the country as well as embrace and protection.

Coat of arms of South Africa today (


Archaeology Newsroom. (2018). A secretary bird in the Temple of Hatshepsut. Extracted from

BirdLife International. (2011). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Birds. London: DK Publishing

Brown, L. & Amadon, D. (1968). Eagles, Hawks, and Falcons of the World. Volume 2. New York: McGraw-Hill

Dean, W.R.J.; Milton, S.J. & Jeltsch, F. (1999). “Large trees, fertile islands, and birds in arid savanna”. Journal of Arid Environments. 41 (1)

Ferguson-Lees, J. & Christie, D. (2001). Raptors of the World. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company

Government Communication and Information System (GCIS). (2000). The National Coat of Arms. Extracted from

Janzen D. H. (1976). The Depression of Reptile Biomass by large herbivores, American Naturalist, 110(973)

Kemp, A. C. (1994) Family Sagittariidae (Secretarybird) trong del Hoyo J.; Elliott A.; Sargatal J. (Eds) Handbook of the Birds of the World, Quyển 2. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions.

Kingfisher. (2014). Bách khoa thư lịch sử (The Kingfisher History Encyclopedia). Hà Nội: Nhã Nam

Steyn, P. (1983). Birds of Prey of Southern Africa: Their Identification & Life Histories. Dover, New Hampshire: Tanager Books.


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