The Secretary Bird

I, for one, am a little annoyed that dinosaurs don’t still walk the Earth.

I can stroll down the street without seeing a single Triceratops or Brachiosaurus, and while that makes me sad, it’s Velociraptor that I really miss. I wish there was a crazy, hip-high, feather-covered predator running around in our time, hunting in packs, literally kickboxing its prey to death left, right and centre, but alas, it’s not to-

Oh.
Oh.

That is the Secretary Bird, the feathery MMA champion of the African Savannah.

Standing at up to 1.3m tall (or over 4 feet) it’s immediately recognisable, with long legs like a crane or flamingo, and a head like an eagle. It even has the distinct colouration and black belt that hints at its true nature – it might strut around like a crane, but this is not a dainty fish-eater.

The Secretary Bird eats venomous snakes.

Unusually for a bird of prey, it spends most of the time on the ground, stomping around. This is where its crazily long legs come in useful – they are armoured with heavy scales and long enough to keep the bird’s body out of reach of most of its prey.

The heavy stomping will disturb any hiding creatures, and the bird’s keen eyes will direct its boot straight to them. The Secretary Bird then reenacts its favourite bits of American History X and Fight Club, kicking the prey to death with repeated strikes that land with up to four times the force of the bird’s weight.

That’s like a boxer landing punches at more than a ton of force each, and then eating you afterwards. Or being hunted by predatory telephone poles.

Rule 1. of "Being Eaten By A Big Bird Club" is "Don't talk about Being Eaten By A Big Bird Club."
Rule 1. of “Being Eaten By A Big Bird Club” is “Don’t talk about Being Eaten By A Big Bird Club.”

All that isn’t to say that the Secretary Bird can’t fly. Oh no. Like all kung fu movie villains, the Secretary Bird has no problem following you into the air.

Pictured: the most literal "flying kick" ever.
Pictured: the most literal “flying kick” ever.

The Secretary Bird even takes its “if velociraptors could fly” gimmick to incredible new levels with its truly sinister alternative hunting techniques.

The bird usually hunts in pairs, but can actually form loose “flocks” which move through the undergrowth together, flushing out prey for one another like the kitchen scene in Jurassic Park. These flocks are particularly fond of waiting by the edge of wildfires, where they ambush the panicked creatures fleeing the blaze. The prey are then KO’d and swallowed whole, or lifted into the air and dropped to their deaths.

Pictured: A breeding pair of secretary birds hunting for mice, National Geographic
Pictured: A breeding pair of secretary birds hunting for mice, National Geographic Magazine

There are even reports of Secretary Birds attacking young gazelles and cheetah cubs, although these are rare – when you’re as good at your job as the secretary bird, you don’t need to look elsewhere for food.

Despite initially taking well to their loss of habitat, and stalking farmland as if it was savannah, the Secretary Bird is now facing a range of new challenges, and is listed as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN.

Deforestation of the acacia trees in which it roosts are one main cause of problems, denying the birds their secure nests, but pesticide use, alongside general brush encroachment and desertification of their ranges, have all contributed to a plummet in numbers in recent years.

With the recent announcements concerning Environmental Policy, especially in the US and UK, these threats are not likely to go away, so it’s up to us. The Secretary Bird can’t flying-kick its way out of habitat loss: to protect its ranges and make sure these incredible birds stay on this Earth, we have to do the flying kicks for it.

Not literally, unless you have to.

That rubber snake is climate change, and you are the secretary bird. Give 'em hell.
That rubber snake is climate change, and you are the secretary bird. Give ’em hell.

Dan

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The Mexican Fish-Eating Bat

Have you ever wondered whether bats go fishing?

Ever lain awake at night thinking about whether their little feet trail through the water, raking up fish so they can hang upside down and eat them? Whether they have some sort of sonar-related way to pick out fish too close to the surface?

Well, wonder no more.

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“Mfmmfm.”

This happy little scamp is the Mexican Fishing Bat, Myotis vivesi. It lives mainly on small islands on the Gulf of California, and emerges at night (as bats are wont to do) to go fishing.

A bat that can fish is weird enough that I would write about it; but how it does the fishing is stranger still.

These bats fly above bodies of water (including the sea) and use echolocation to accurately perceive the surface of the water, like some sort of 3D targeting system. When they detect the tell-tale ripples or disturbances of fish close to the surface, they then move to attack – and it’s the sort of attack that makes you realise why you never see The Joker in a boat.

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“First the fish. Then the criminals.”

The bat swoops low, homing in on where it predicts the fish to be, and drops its specialised, clawed feet into the water, trailing them along like Hell’s very own little fish trawler. The rake-like feet are elongated and flattened, so they skim through the water more easily, and the claws are massive and curved forward to catch in any prey like hooks.

Mexican FIshing Bat (Myotis vivesi)
They had to call it the “Mexican Fishing Bat” because “Mexican Freddy-Krueger-Footed Bat” was apparently already taken.

The bat hits the fish at high speed, hooking it with its creepy little claws and dragging it clear of the water, before swinging it up into its creepy little mouth full of creepy little teeth.

Mexican Fishing Bat (Myotis vivesi)
You’re going to hear a lot of scratching in the attic tonight. It’s probably nothing.

Just so we’re clear, it makes a screaming demon face while doing it, too.

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Just in case any of you were wondering about whether there is a god (who does anything besides inspiring creeping madness).

It then flies off to a convenient perch, where it hangs upside down and eats the entire fish, as seen in the first picture. Don’t think you’re safe just because you’re a crab or something, either. If it lives in the water, the Myotis will eat it. They’ve been recorded eating crustaceans, frogs, algae and small fish, as well as the airborne insects above the water, and presumably those of the researchers that were out in boats on the water’s surface. Unusually for land mammals, they can also concentrate their urine far above the mammalian norms, allowing them to survive in their arid environment by drinking seawater. Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink, except for the bats.

The echolocation means they’re accurate in total darkness, so the fish have no sensory ability that can pick them up before the strike. Out of the water and with no light to give them away, the bats are undetectable to their prey until it is far, far too late.

You’d probably have a better chance of picking one up if it came raking its claws down your street, though.

Yeah, you’d probably be fine.

Dan

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“Everyone! Let’s go skinny dipping!”

(Image credit for Image 1 – chiroptera.fr (Chiroblog), Image 2 – abmexico.blogspot, Images 3 and 4 -Scott Trageser Photography, Image 5 – youtube still, “World’s Deadliest Fishing Bats”, Image 6 – web.ecologia.unam.mx