Fledglings to contribute to saving their species

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SABRINA DEAN

Researchers and conservationists are waiting with baited breath for two secretary bird chicks to leave the nest and start contributing valuable data towards conservation of the species.

This after Kimberley’s McGregor Museum banded together with various roleplayers, including the Endangered Wildlife Trust, to fit tracking devices to two secretary bird chicks born in the region last year. McGregor Museum zoologist Beryl Wilson says the devices were successfully fitted earlier this month and are functioning well so far.

Wilson says several similar projects have been initiated since the secretary bird was declared a threatened species in 2012, with current numbers standing at less than 10 000. "There have been a number of projects countrywide looking at what is happening to secretary birds as a whole and the reasons for their decline," she says.

The two chicks have officially been named the Dronfield chick and the Rooifontein chick after the reserves where they were hatched, but Wilson fondly refers to them as Pip and Squeak. "I’ve been monitoring them since October when they were still eggs… You grow with the chicks as they come out, become fluffy, develop into teenagers…"

André Botha of the Endangered Wildlife Trust says his organisation is working hand-in-hand with other roleplayers, including Birdlife SA, to try and get a better understanding of the habits of these birds. "In terms of study and research that has been done the secretary bird it is fairly poorly studied. I’m afraid it’s a very familiar species conservation story – we are playing catch-up trying to found out what the species is all about," he says.


Beryl Wilson from the McGregor Museum and André Botha from the Endangered Wildlife Trust, with Pip, the Dronfield secretary bird chick, shortly after the tracking device was successfully fitted.


One bit of information that has been discovered since tracking projects were initiated is the vast distances flown by the birds, which are often described as largely terrestrial. Wilson says prior to tracking, the assumption was that the birds would stay in the area where they hatched.

"It came as a big surprise to us as researchers when we fitted chicks and within months they had travelled massive distances, such as from the highveld right across to Botswana and back," she says.

Speaking about the chicks leaving the nest, Botha says he feels a bit like the parent of a university first year. "Once you’ve invested the time and effort, disturbed the nest to fit the tracking devices, I think what you are waiting for is for them to start dispersing from the nest…"

He says it is very exciting, but also leaves researchers with a sense of trepidation. "You don’t know what these birds will do, where they will go… young birds in the first year or two of their lives are extremely vulnerable," he says.
Wilson meanwhile says protection of the species is also a matter of national pride. "If you look at the South African coat of arms it’s actually one of the animals depicted there and it would be rather a shame to say in years to come ‘look at our coat of arms – that bird is now extinct’," she says.

sabrina@centralmediagroup.co.za