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Red Legged Seriema

Cariama cristata

  1. Not Evaluated
  2. Data Deficient
  3. Least Concern
  4. Near Threatened
  5. Vulnerable
  6. Endangered
  7. Critically Endangered
  8. Extinct in the Wild
  9. Extinct

About Us

The Red Legged Seriema is an unusual bird, found in South America. They are thought to be a relative of the crane, but could also be closely related to Cuckoos, Falcons, or Parrots. It is still a widely disputed question. The Seriema is famous for its unique way of killing its prey. When killing a large prey item, such as a snake, they will pick it up in their beak and forcefully throw it at the ground, until it is stunned or dead. They are also referred to as the ‘Crested Seriema’ due to the large crest of feathers on their head. This is where their scientific name also comes from, as ‘cristata’ is Latin for ‘crested one’.

Here at Woburn we have one Seriema, a male, called Diego. Diego likes to demonstrate to our audiences how he kills a plastic snake, by hitting it against the ground. He also likes to stride around the arena showing off his long red legs!

Distribution
Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina
Habitat
Grasslands, meadows, rivers and streams
Height
75 - 90cm
Weight
Up to 1.5kg
Lifespan
In captivity 20 to 25 years
Threats
Persecution from farmers

Physical Features

The red legged seriema is a distinctive and large bird, weighing up to 1.5kg, and reaching nearly a metre tall. The main part of the body is mainly grey, with brown specks, and the under parts are paler. The tail feathers have a dark band, with white tips. Their colouration provides camouflage in the tall grasses they inhabit, and they will often choose to lie down in the grass when threatened instead of running.

The large beak is red, with pale blue skin around the beak and eyes. The eyes have a black ring around them, and unusually for birds, the upper eyelids feature long eyelashes.

The legs are long, and as the name suggests, red. They are very strong, and allow them to run at speeds of 15mph, and jump high. The feet have three toes, with talons, including a hook shaped talon on the middle toe, used for fighting, and for holding down prey while eating them.

Often referred to as the crested seriema, the head features a large crest of feathers, starting from the top of the beak. This crest can be erected for displaying.

Their call can travel over a mile, making it difficult to estimate populations numbers based on hearing individuals.

The seriema is capable of flying, although only short distances. It rarely flies, except when flying up to high nest sites, and into trees to roost, and instead prefers to run.

The juvenile bird resembles adult but with a more strongly marked head, neck and back.

Diet and Hunting Behaviour

The seriema is omnivorous, and will eat small quantities of plant matter, but rely mostly on meat. The main part of their diet consists of rodents, frogs, lizards, small birds, and occasionally snakes. They will also eat a large quantity of insects, in particular beetles and grasshoppers. The plant portion of their diet includes leaves, fruit, seeds, and agricultural crops such as beans, wheat, and corn.

The seriema relies on its long legs to run down prey, reaching speeds of up to 15mph. Once caught the seriema will take its prey in its beak, and throw it at the ground with force or beat it against something hard. This action either kills of stuns the prey, which is then held to the floor with its foot, before being ripped apart with the strong beak.  For smaller prey items they may just hold them down, or even eat them whole if small enough.

Due to their taste for insects seriemas can often be found following large herds of cattle, or horses, eating the insects disturbed by their grazing.

They are usually found foraging in small groups, using each other as lookouts for predators. If one bird is spooked and runs the rest will follow, or may all lie down in the grass in the hope of being hidden.

Communication

The seriema has a very distinctive and loud call. It has been described as like a yelping dog or a clucking turkey, with high pitched long phrases, in sequences, and is usually heard around the early morning as a territorial song. One member of the pair will usually start the call, with the other replying in a duet. At the loudest part of the song, the bird has its neck bent back so its head is touching its back. Chicks will start to make this call from as young as 2 weeks, and will help the adults defend the nest by calling too. They will also make high pitched squeaks, and if disturbed can make a growl like noise.

Their call travels such long distances that it is though that estimates for their population size have been miscalculated from hearing very distant calls. It can be heard from over a mile away.

The large crest of feathers, which it gets its scientific name from, will be erect during fights, courtship displays, and when the bird is alarmed.

During the mating season, the male will put on an elaborate courtship display for the female. This will involve the male stretching out his flight feathers, down one side of the body, and strutting, with his head pointed down, and is crest erect. He will also call, making squeak like noises.

When fighting the seriema will jump at each other feet first, flapping their wings to keep balance.

Seriemas are monogamous, mating for life. They are often found in these pairs, or in a small group. At night they will roost together on a branch.

Breeding

During the mating season, which is from May to September depending on the region, the male will put on an elaborate courtship display for the female. This will involve the male stretching out his flight feathers, down one side of the body, and strutting, with his head pointed down, and is crest erect. He will also call with high pitched squeaks.

The pair will be territorial, calling in the early morning to defend this territory. Their call has been described as like a yelping dog or a clucking turkey, with high pitched long phrases, in sequences. One member of the pair will usually start the call, with the other replying in a duet. At the loudest part of the song, the bird has its neck bent back so its head is touching its back. Chicks will start to make this call from as young as 2 weeks, and will help the adults defend the nest by calling too.

Both the male and female will help construct the nest, which can be on the ground, in a bush, or in a tree at heights of up to 3m. This nest will be made of twigs, mud, or cattle dung, and leaves, and will take over a month for the pair to construct.

The female will lay 2 eggs, and will incubate them for 25 to 30 days. Once hatched it will take up to 12 to 15 days before the young will start to follow their parents, and they will fledge at around 1 month old. Until fledging they will rely on the parents for food, with both providing this.

The seriema reaches sexual maturity at around 8 months old. The wild lifespan in unknown, but 20 to 25 years in captivity is common, and the oldest recorded captive seriema lived to 48 years old.

Husbandry

All of our birds are flown or exercised daily. This has many benefits to the animal. Firstly it allows the animal to exercise, keeping them fit, and developing flying and leg muscles. It also allows them to perform their natural behaviours, for some of our birds this may include various hunting techniques such as catching prey mid-flight, and chasing down ground prey, or killing a (rubber) snake in the case of our seriema.

Each bird has a varied diet, just as it would in the wild, mimicking the varying nutritional properties of each food type and the quantities.

Threats and Conservation

The main threat to the seriema is conflict with farmers. They are often killed by farmers for eating their crops. However to some farmers they can be a valuable tool, with some using their natural feistiness to instead guard their livestock from foxes. They will capture a young seriema and tame it, training it to act as a guard dog, warning off predators such as foxes.

Due to their varied diet they are highly adaptable, and although there has been significant habitat loss in their range they have adapted well. They are one of few species who may benefit from deforestation, as it creates more open grassy habitats, perfect for seriemas. They are more commonly being found in manmade grass areas.

Their population is thought to be decreasing, but population estimates are hard to make, and current estimates may even be incorrect. Due to the seriemas long ranging call it is thought population counts might have been miscalculated.

They are listed as appendix II of CITES, which means the trade and export of this species is heavily regulated and controlled to protect them.

Fun Facts

They are one of few birds to have eyelashes!

Farmers will often keep them as ‘guard dogs’ to protect their animals from predators!

They like to sunbathe, lying on their side, looking a bit like they are dead!

They are fast runners, reaching top speeds of up to 15mph!