Hold onto your butts, because two raptors are loose in North Carolina.
A pair of secretary birds (Sagittarius serpentarius) escaped from the North Carolina Zoo last week, and officials are still tracking their whereabouts. This large, predatory species is native to sub-Saharan and eastern Africa, and is recognizable by its long legs and crested crown. (Technically, secretary birds are regarded as raptors, but are actually classified in a family by themselves.)
As of today, the birds have been spotted multiple times, but remain at large.
The four-foot-tall avians slipped through "an egress that was not tightly secured," and had been blown open by strong winds, according to a press release issued by the zoo. Staff there insist the birds aren't dangerous to people or pets (unlike others)—feeding mostly on snakes and frogs, as they would in their natural habitat. Secretary birds are sometimes called "marching eagles," since they have an affinity for stalking prey on foot.
"The pair of secretary birds are male and female, and they are at the North Carolina Zoo for breeding purposes," Gary Buchanan, a spokesperson for the North Carolina Zoo, told me. Secretary birds are considered vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
I was curious to know whether an invasive population of terrestrial raptors could, theoretically, establish itself in North Carolina. Crazier things have happened. Look at Florida's itinerant herds of capybara.
In captivity, secretary birds are likely fed a zoo diet of rodents, such as baby mice. But in the wild, they'd have access to the region's abundant reptile and amphibian population. The escaped birds have already been "seen hunting and adapting to the environment and surroundings. They've been seen feeding on different kinds of snakes," Buchanan told the News & Observer.
However, a diaspora of secretary birds flourishing in the Carolinas "doesn't seem real likely," Kenn Kaufman, a field editor at the National Audubon Society, told me. Although the birds are "pretty adaptable within their range," he added, "they don't reproduce really fast," only laying clutches of one to three eggs at a time.
Come winter, "my guess is [the birds would have] sort of a rough time in the Carolinas. I don't think it's likely that they would establish and thrive long-term, but I could be wrong," Kaufman said.
I also wondered whether the presence of secretary birds could compete with other raptors in the area. Barred owls, for example, are often considered a main threat to the survival of the endangered northern spotted owl. But Kaufman said that in Africa, secretary birds coexist quite peacefully with other traditional raptors like hawks, eagles, and falcons.
So, okay. Maybe we don't have to worry about a flock of leggy, feathered predators terrorizing the foothills. It was still fun to think about.
Local residents should call the zoo's hotline at 336-879-7610 with reports of sightings. For now, there's "plenty of prey for them to hunt and eat," the zoo assured me. They're "very resilient birds."