Snake-hunting secretary bird has killer kick

Thu Feb 25, 2016 7:59am EST
 
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By Matthew Stock

Scientists in the UK have found that a bird of prey native to sub-Saharan Africa can deliver precise and powerful kicks with a force five times its own body weight; enough to kill venomous snakes in less than the blink of an eye.

    The secretary bird stands over 4 ft. tall on long, crane-like legs. Unlike most birds of prey that swoop down from the air to make a kill, the secretary bird hunts its quarry mostly on foot. Its method for dispatching its prey by stamping on it is distinct from other raptors that typically use their beak to kill after catching their prey with their talons.

    "They're unique, actually, there's no other bird of prey that are related to them; they're in their own family group. So taxonomically they're very distinct from any other birds of prey," explained Dr. Campbell Murn from the Hawk Conservancy Trust in Hampshire, adding, "they eat a lot of invertebrates, they eat a lot of small mammals, anything that's basically small enough to be chased down, kicked, disabled, swallowed - it's on the menu."

    A team of researchers from Royal Holloway, University of London, the Royal Veterinary College, and the Hawk Conservancy Trust used a male secretary bird called Madeleine to discover just how powerful a kick the creature could deliver.

    Madeleine was trained to attack a rubber snake in his enclosure at the Hawk Conservancy Trust. The force of the kicks was measured by a force plate concealed under artificial grass as the rubber snake was pulled across it.

    The maximum force they managed to obtain was just over 195 Newton's; about 20 kilogram-force (kgf).

    "If you look at it proportionately, or if you scaled it up to somebody my size, it's the equivalent to me kicking with about half-a-tonne of force through my heel straight down on the ground," Campbell told Reuters.

    He added: "Importantly, it's happening from a standing start. There are other birds of prey that hit their prey with incredible force but they're usually jumping down from a tree branch or a post, or stooping like a falcon. Madeleine's doing it from a standing start and just going 'whack' with over five times her body weight, from a standing start."   Continued...