The Secretary Bird of Pleistocene North America (Buteogallus daggetti)

Most species of birds that became extinct at the end of the Pleistocene were dependent upon the megafauna in some way.  The list of extinct species includes 2 relatives of the extant cowbird.  These birds likely followed herds of mammoths and horses around, just like their living cousins follow herds of bison and introduced cattle to feed on stirred-up insects and dislodged grass seeds.  Several species of extinct vultures, condors, and eagles obviously disappeared when there were no longer any carcasses of mammoths, ground sloths, llamas, etc. to feed upon.  Extant California condors, golden eagles, and magpies suffered reduced ranges for the same reason.  There were several species of raptors in the Buteogallus genus living in the southern region of North America during the late Pleistocene.  The Buteogallus genus is classified within the Accipitritidae family which includes the well known Cooper’s hawk and goshawk of North America.  However, the 9 extant species in the Buteogallus genus are restricted to South American and Mexico.  3 extinct species of late Pleistocene Buteogallus ranged into Florida and California.  Perhaps the most interesting was the walking eagle (Buteogallus daggetti).

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Savannah hawk.  The walking eagle was a close relative of the savannah hawk but had even longer legs.

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Secretary bird.  The savannah hawk and walking eagle occupy (ied) a convergent ecological niche with this species–grassland birds that feed upon rodents, reptiles, and large insects stirred up by fire or megafauna.

The walking eagle most closely resembled the living savannah hawk (B. meridionalis) of South America, but it had even longer legs.  It hunted small animals from the air and the ground, like its living relative.  Both species occupy (or occupied in the case of the extinct species) a similar niche exploited by the secretary bird (Sagittarius serpentarius) of Africa today.  All 3 of these tall grassland birds use (or used) their long legs to pummel small vertebrates.  The walking eagle likely preyed on small animals escaping grass fires, like savannah hawks and scissor-tailed swallows do today.  Walking eagles may have preyed upon rodents, reptiles, and large insects forced to come out of hiding in tall grass and reveal themselves when herds of megafauna threatened to trample them.  Subfossil remains of walking eagles have been excavated from northern Mexico and southern California, but they may have been more widespread.  They may have lived in habitats where geological preservation of bird bones is rare.  The dhole (Cuon alpinus) crossed the Bering land bridge and colonized North America during the Pleistocene, but its remains have only been found at 1 site in Mexico. The walking eagle may be another example of a once common animal that left scant fossil evidence of its existence.

Another extinct species in the Buteogallus genus, the fragile eagle (B. fragilis), lived in California until the late Pleistocene–its remains are relatively common from the La Brea Tar Pits.  Remains of the fragile eagle are also known from the mid-Pleistocene of Florida.  Subsequent sea level rise may have inundated fragile eagle habitat in Florida, causing its extirpation there, but it may have continued to occur elsewhere in southeastern North America where it remains undetected in the fossil record.

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Great black hawk.  This species currently inhabits wetlands in the tropics of South America and along both Mexican coasts.  It lived in Florida during the mid-Pleistocene.

The great black hawk (B. urbutinga) occurs today in South America and along both coasts of Mexico.  Remains of this species dating to the mid-Pleistocene have also been found in Florida.  Sea level rise probably caused the extirpation of this species from peninsular Florida too, and it is not known from any other site north of Mexico.  An extinct close relative of the great black hawk (B. borrasi) inhabited Cuba during the late Pleistocene.  It was 33% larger than its living close relative.  B. borrasi probably evolved from a population of B. urbutinga that found their way to Cuba, but it may have been more widespread in the West Indies and maybe even Florida earlier during the Pleistocene.  A less likely but possible explanation is that B. borrasi was formerly more common across southeastern North America but by the late Pleistocene there was just a relic population living on Cuba.  A genetic study could probably solve this mystery.

Reference:

Olson, Storrs

“The Walking Eagle Wetmorgyps daggetti: A scaled up version of the Savannah Hawk”

Ornithological Monographs 63 2007

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One Response to “The Secretary Bird of Pleistocene North America (Buteogallus daggetti)”

  1. ina puustinen-westerholm Says:

    The shoulder curvatures, feather ‘shanaigans”(as in I’d NOT PAY..moi ..hairdresser..for the middle bird)..are a pleasure to read. For some reason..coloring, body pose..not sure..but the savannah hawk..puts me in mind..of harry potter folks/critters..and shape shifters. 🙂

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