Scientists are studying the snake-hunting ability of the secretary bird from sub-Saharan Africa, which can kick a snake to death with a force five times its own body weight. Matthew Stock reports.
Venomous snakes are no match for this bird of prey. Called secretary birds, they're native to sub-Saharan Afica, where swiftly killing potentially deadly snakes is vital to survival. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DR CAMPBELL MURN, HEAD OF CONSERVATION & RESEARCH, HAWK CONSERVANCY TRUST, SAYING: "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... 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." British scientists wanted to know just how powerful a kick the bird can deliver. They enlisted the help of Madeleine here. Using force plates hidden under the ground, they coaxed Madeleine to attack a rubber snake. They measured a maximum force of over 195 Newton's; about 20 kilogram-force (kgf). (SOUNDBITE) (English) DR CAMPBELL MURN, HEAD OF CONSERVATION & RESEARCH, HAWK CONSERVANCY TRUST, SAYING: "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 450 or half a tonne of force through my heel straight down on the ground. But importantly, it's happening from a standing start... and just going 'whack' with over five times her body weight, from a standing start." The contact time between the bird's feet and the snake was just 15 milliseconds - that's a tenth of the time it takes to blink an eye. The research could have a number of novel applications, including 'biologically inspired' tech. SOUNDBITE) (English) DR CAMPBELL MURN, HEAD OF CONSERVATION & RESEARCH, HAWK CONSERVANCY TRUST, SAYING: "How we manage artificial limbs, how we design them, and the way the bio-mechanics of the secretary bird's working, in terms of its needs for locomotion and its needs for attacking its prey - and how that works from a bio-mechanical perspective can help give us insights into the way we might develop prosthetics." Secretary birds are classed as vulnerable, with numbers declining; possibly exacerbated by shrinking habitat. Conservationists want more data to better understand their status, and hopefully keep these magnificent birds alive... and kicking.