American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
- n. A large African bird of prey (Sagittarius serpentarius) with long legs and a crest of quills at the back of the head.
Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia
- n. A remarkable raptorial bird of Africa, with very long legs; the serpent-eater or crane-vulture. This bird appears to have been first named Sagittarius by Vos-maer in 1769; it is le secrétaire, le message, and le mangeur de serpens of early French writers, and Falco serpentarius, Vultur serpentarius, Otis secretarius, and Vultur secretarius of ornithologists of the last century. Between 1797 and 1817 four different generic names were based upon this type (see
Sagittarius);and since 1800 five specific names have been added (reptilivorus, africanus, capensis, gambiensis, and, erroneously, philippensis) — the various combinations of the New Latin generic and specific names being now about twenty. The earliest tenable generic name (see onym) is Serpentarius of Cuvier; the earliest tenable specific name is serpentarius (Miller, 1785). Some strict constructionists of nomenclatural rules would combine these in the tautology of Serpentarius serpentarius, a form which has been introduced sparingly into the present work, simply to recognize its existence. The next specific name in chronological order is secretarius of Scopoli, 1786, yielding with the proper generic name the unexceptionable onym Serpentarius secretarius. The name secretary refers to the bird's crest, which when lying smoothly on the head has been likened to a scribe's pen stuck over the ear; and this is also the explanation of Sagittarius. The term cranevulture (a reflection of Illiger's genus Gypogeranus) indicates the long legs like those of a grallatorial bird; Serpentarius, Ophiotheres, and reptilivorus describe the bird's characteristic habit of feeding upon snakes. Most of the remaining designations are place-names (one of them, philippensis, a blunder). The systematic position of this isolated type has been much discussed. It has usually been put in the Raptores, as a member of either of the families Falconidæ or Vulturidæ, or as forming a separate family called Serpentariidæor Gypogeranidæ. Cuvier put the bird among waders, next to the boat-billed herons (Cancroma). The late Dr. H. Schlegel of Leyden thought it was a goshawk, and called it Astur secretarius. The expert of the British Museum in the latest official lists locates it next to the cariama (which is transferred to the family Falconidæ on the strength of the supposed relationship). The appearance of the secretary-bird is somewhat suggestive of the hoactzin (see cuts under hoactzinand Opisthocomus). It is about 4 feet long from the tip of the bill to the end of the tail; the wing from the carpal joint to the point measures 25 inches; the tail is about as long as this, the tarsus 13½ inches. The general color is ashy-gray; the flight-feathers, the feathered part of the legs, and the lower belly are black; the breast and under wing-and tail-coverts are whitish, more or less shaded with ashy; the two middle tail-feathers are longer than the rest, white-tipped, and with subterminal black bar. There is a bare orange-yellow space about the eyes; the iris is hazel; the shanks are flesh-colored. The long crest of black or gray blacktipped feathers springs from the hindhead and nape; these feathers are somewhat spatulate, and dispart when the crest is erected under excitement. The serpent-eater has a very capacious gullet and crop, capable of holding at once several snakes two or three feet long; it also eats other reptiles, as lizards, frogs, toads, and young tortoises. It is said to attack large serpents by grasping them in its talons and striking blows with the wings until it can deal a decisive thrust with the beak upon the head of its prey. The bird has often been tamed by the Dutch colonists, and kept to rid their premises of vermin.
- n. A large bird of prey, Sagittarius serpentarius, native to Africa with very long legs, so named because of its crest of long feathers resembling quill pens stuck behind the ears of an office clerk. It preys on reptiles, especially snakes.
GNU Webster's 1913
- n. (Zoöl.) A large long-legged raptorial bird (Gypogeranus serpentarius), native of South Africa, but now naturalized in the West Indies and some other tropical countries. It has a powerful hooked beak, a crest of long feathers, and a long tail. It feeds upon reptiles of various kinds, and is much prized on account of its habit of killing and devouring snakes of all kinds. Called also
- n. large long-legged African bird of prey that feeds on reptiles
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