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The Harpy Eagle’s name is incredibly fitting since it appears to be nothing short of a mythical creature. Bizarre doesn’t cover it when you scroll through photos of this insanely unique-looking bird. Harpies in Greek mythology are half-bird, half-human creatures that were the hounds of Zeus.
They were initially described as beautiful, youthful winged maidens with long hair, but as time went on, their description became less favorable. Roman poets began to describe them as a haggard winged beast with the head of a woman and the body of a deadly bird.
The harpy was believed to be a wind spirit responsible for strong abrupt gusts and storms. Harpies were often considered accountable for the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of people and items.
Today, the word harpy is used to refer to a person, typically a woman (boo!), who is considered shrew or foul. Now, if you were to compare women to the Harpy Eagle, that might be more accurate, for these eagles are very fierce and impressive creatures.
Carl Linnaeus is responsible for the correlation between this bird and its mythological name. The Harpy Eagle belongs to the family Accipitridae, which includes small to large birds with substantial hooked bills.
- Bat Hawk
- Crested Eagle
- Harpy Eagle
- Papuan Eagle
The Harpy Eagle is the only member of its genus, Harpia.
How to Identify The Harpy Eagle
The Harpy Eagle is the most powerful raptor in the world. While it may not be the largest raptor worldwide, it is easily regarded as one of the largest eagles in the Americas.
They range from 3 to 3.5 feet in length and have a wingspan up to 6.5 feet. They weigh anywhere from 9 to 20 pounds and have yellow feet and black talons that are 3 to 5 inches. For reference, a grizzly bear has claws that are about 2 to 4 inches. Sheesh!
Female Harpy Eagles are larger than males and often weigh twice as much. Unlike other species of birds, females and males have the same coloration.
Adults have a light gray head, black wings, and upper parts, with a black collar or ring that ends mid-breast. Their underparts are white with black striped tarsi, or legs, that are thick and long.
When the Harpy Eagles’ wings are expanded, the undersides have horizontal black and white stripes. Long gray tail feathers feature black and white bars across the underside as well.
Their heads have a double-crested crown featuring long black feathers they will fan out when threatened or at will. The facial disk is created by small gray feathers that encompass the face.
These feathers can be raised and lowered as needed to improve hearing and direct sound to their ears, equivalent to an owl. Their large hooked bills are slate black, and distinct gray-yellow eyes with large black pupils stand out perfectly against their gray circular faces.
Harpy Eagles have a distinct look that is impossible to miss if you’re looking for it. You may mistake it for a Crested Eagle or vice versa, but look out for the black band across the Harpy Eagles’ chest, massive talons, and thicker body and legs.
Habitat: Where Does The Harpy Eagle Live
When I first saw photos of the Harpy Eagle, I thought for sure this bird loved cold weather. I was quickly corrected and happily surprised to learn that these birds love the rainforest.
Harpy Eagles live in Mexico, Central America, and South America in forested tropical lowlands. Harpy Eagles prefer elevations below 3,000 feet but have been observed as high as 6,600 feet.
They can be found in the mid to upper canopies of the rainforest as these are their preferred hunting grounds. They are agile in their navigation of these densely forested areas despite their large wingspans. It will come as no shock to learn that they are top predators of the rainforest.
Harpy Eagle Diet and Feeding
The Harpy Eagle has its choice of basically any small to medium-sized animal in the rainforest. This carnivore tends to focus hunting efforts on tree-dwelling mammals like monkeys and sloths. Other animals that fall prey to the crushing talons and powerful tarsi are:
- And More!
A prey study conducted on the Harpy Eagle revealed that 39% of their captured prey consisted of sloths, while 34% were primates. The rest of their diet was made up of medium-sized mammals, large birds, and large reptiles.
Over the course of the study, the Harpy Eagle nest collected a total of 102 different species. The rainforest provides a very diverse menu!
This mighty eagle has the largest talons of any living eagle species, and you bet they use these sloth snatchers to their advantage when hunting prey. Harpy Eagles will typically perch, camouflaged within the canopy, and listen for the movement of prey. They have great eyesight also but typically hunt mid-canopy where sunlight is less frequent.
They will fly tactfully between trees as they lock in their kill. They can easily snatch the unlucky animal right up. If their large talons do not immediately kill their prey, they can exert extreme pressure to crush the animal’s bones.
Females aim their gaze on larger prey while males focus on a large number of smaller kills. Females regularly capture sloths, howler monkeys, and spider monkeys weighing between 13 to 20 lbs.
My chihuahua wouldn’t stand a chance. Interestingly enough, smaller animals like marmosets and tamarinds are ignored since their minimum prey weight is usually about 6 pounds.
Harpy Eagles aren’t like other raptors in many ways, but one of the most notable is that they do not need to hunt every day to sustain themselves. They frequently feed on yesterday’s leftovers for a few days.
Even as the carcass of their last kill begins to decompose, the Harpy Eagle has a steel stomach that has evolved to eat the rotten meat. They also can go up to a week without eating if needed.
When prey is captured, the Harpy Eagle may consume some of it on the forest floor to reduce the prey’s weight. Then the eagle will carry the carcass to their nest to finish the meal.
The weight limit for flying with prey in their deadly clutches is about 20 pounds. Researches study their dietary habits by examining animal remains that are left in the Harpy Eagle’s nest. I guess they’re not fond of doing the dishes.
Harpy Eagle Breeding
Romantics at heart, Harpy Eagles mate for life. When the rainy season of spring approaches, the breeding season commences. The research conducted on this species is limited since they live much of their lives camouflaged by the canopy of the rainforest.
However, in a 1974 study conducted by The Auk: A Quarterly Journal of Ornithology focusing on their breeding behavior, Harpy Eagles displayed no ritualistic behavior prior to copulation.
Harpy Eagle Nesting
The silk cotton or kapok tree is a deciduous tree that Harpy Eagles select when building large nests. These are the largest trees in the tropics where they live, commonly reaching 200 feet tall when fully mature, and they are an astonishing 5 to 8 feet in diameter. These massive trees seem ideally suited for a Harpy Eagle’s enormous nest.
Often in the fork of the tree, where many main branches meet is where the Harpy Eagle pair will build a nest that is roughly 140 feet off the ground. Both the male and the female collect large sticks and branches.
Their strong legs and tarsi are powerful enough to break a large branch in half with ease. A typical nest is 1 to 3 feet deep, 4 to 6 feet wide, and is comprised of more than 300 branches. It sounds like me, and my sleeping bag would do just fine in a nest of that size.
After spending weeks building the base structure of the nest, both the male and female will begin to collect green sprigs to add to the nest until the female starts incubating eggs.
The pair will continue to bring these fresh green sprigs to the nest even after the chicks have hatched. This method of nest maintenance is believed to keep the temperature low in the nest and reduce interference from parasites and insects.
Nests are often reused by a breeding pair the following breeding season, and after all that effort, I’d sure hope so. A female Harpy Eagle will lay a clutch once every two or three years.
Harpy Eagle Eggs
Females will lay two eggs; however, the Harpy mates will nurture only one chick after hatching. The female and male both incubate the eggs for an impressive 56 days, and when you think about it, these birds are massive, so that adds up.
Mom and dad will nurture the first egg to hatch, and the other egg will perish since it is no longer being incubated. For ten months, the chick will get to live off of its parents even though they are technically fledging age at six months.
After a while, the adults will begin to provide fewer resources. Once the juvenile reaches five years old, it is officially breeding age. In some cases, a youngster will return to the tree where they were raised in order to breed because, after all, there’s no place like home.
Harpy Eagle Population
The Harpy Eagle population is estimated to be fewer than 50,000. These majestic birds require a stable and thriving environment to survive. Harpy Eagles need about 20 miles of hunting territory, and deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon is an active threat to their numbers.
Harpy Eagles are an essential part of the ecosystems in which they live. While they don’t have too many predators attempting to hunt them, they control the population of many species of mesopredators, or mid-ranking predators, such as monkeys.
Without animals to hunt these species, they would remain unchecked, wreaking havoc in all sorts of ways, primarily by egg snatching and chick hunting, leading to lower population numbers for tropical birds like Macaws and Harpies.
Is The Harpy Eagle Endangered?
Unfortunately, the Harpy Eagle is critically endangered throughout Mexico and Central America. They are listed as Near Threatened by the Internation Union for Conservation of Nature. Deforestation of the rainforest and shooting by humans are the two largest threats Harpy Eagles face.
Harpy Eagle Conservation Efforts
Many animals of the world rely on conservationists to protect their habitats and increase their numbers in the wild. While it is devastating that so many need our protection, usually from factors caused by humans in the first place, it feels good knowing that there are organizations, zoos, and rescues working to save so many endangered species.
Unfortunately, Harpy Eagles need the help of these hardworking organizations. The Peregrine Fund is a non-profit organization that focuses its conservation efforts on raptors and other birds of prey that are facing extinction.
Founded in 1970, the Peregrine Fund began the Harpy Eagle Release Project in 1989 in an effort to breed and release Harpy Eagles into their native territory of Panama while also working to protect the forests they call home. Recently, the Peregrine Fund declared the Harpy Eagle a conservation-dependant species.
The San Diego Zoo has been breeding and releasing Harpy Eagles in conjunction with the Harpy Eagle Project since 1992. The zoo has successfully hatched 15 eggs and released two offspring. They donated two of these Harpies to Zoo Miami.
From this pair of donated Harpies, Zoo Miami created the Harpy Eagle Center at Summit Zoo and Gardens in Panama City, Panama. This top-notch facility aims to educate thousands of visitors per year as to how they can help conserve these habitats.
Zoo Miami also worked tirelessly to get the Harpy Eagle legally instated as the National Bird of Panama. This gives the species additional federal protections that it would not have otherwise received.
Harpy Eagle Habits
If you’re not thoroughly fascinated by these spectacular birds, here are a few fun facts that are sure to pique your interest:
- Harpy Eagles are the rainforest’s most powerful raptor
- The Harpy Eagle can fly up to 50 miles per hour
- They are the only dinural bird with a facial disk
- From 220 yards away, the Harpy Eagle can see the movement of something 1 inch in size.
Harpy Eagle Predators
You can be a big bad rainforest predator, but there is always someone bigger looking for a delectable meal. Luckily for Harpy Eagles, their predators are few and far between but not nonexistent — Ocelots, jaguars, and other big cats may strike when the opportunity presents itself, though these occurrences are rare.
A survey conducted by The Peregrine Fund found that most humans shoot Harpy Eagles sadly because they’re afraid of the animal or curious about it. An eagle in the wild is very unlikely to attack a human unless it feels threatened.
This is especially true during breeding season. There are no recorded instances of a Harpy Eagle attacking a human. Unfortunately, humans also have to be listed as a predator of the Harpy Eagle.
Harpy Eagle Lifespan
The Harpy Eagle can live for 60 or more years in captivity as documented by the San Diego Zoo. In the wild, a Harpy Eagle is suspected to live 25 to 35 years. Things like injuries and disease significantly decrease a Harpy Eagle’s chances of survival in the wild.
Answer: Although this behavior has never been recorded, a Harpy Eagle could hypothetically kill a human and eat it. This is very unlikely behavior, and humans should always avoid interfering with wild animals.
Answer: The Harpy Eagle has no natural predators, but big cats like ocelots and jaguars have been known to attack, albeit rarely. Sadly, humans are the top killer of Harpies via deforestation and shooting.
Answer: The Martial Eagle in South Africa is the largest eagle when measuring for length and wingspan. This raptor has an enormous 8.5-foot wingspan. The Harpy is ranked as the eighth largest eagle but is often referred to as the largest eagle in the Americas and the most powerful raptor in the world.
Answer: Currently, the Harpy Eagle is listed as Critically Endangered in Mexico and Central America and classified as Near Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Many organizations are focusing on reestablishing healthy population numbers for the species. However, deforestation in the tropics is an obstacle that must be contained in order to save the species.
Answer: No. It is illegal to own a Harpy Eagle and downright dangerous. This is an endangered species that should only be bred in captivity by experts and those trained to handle raptors.
Answer: In the United States, the San Diego Zoo is the only zoo to currently have a Harpy Eagle on display. If you travel to Panama City, Panama, you will also have the opportunity to see a Harpy Eagle in captivity.
- Harpy Eagle | The Peregrine Fund. (n.d.-b). Retrieved from www.peregrinefund.org website: https://www.peregrinefund.org/explore-raptors-species/eagles/harpy-eagle
- Harpy Eagle | San Diego Zoo Animals & Plants. (n.d.). Retrieved July 4, 2022, from animals.sandiegozoo.org website: https://animals.sandiegozoo.org/animals/harpy-eagle#:~:text=This%20dark%20gray%20bird%20of
- Jungle Eagle Harpy Eagle Facts | Nature | PBS. (2011, November 7). Retrieved July 4, 2022, from PBS website: https://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/jungle-eagle-harpy-eagle-fact-sheet/7263/#:~:text=Lifespan%3A%20The%20bird
- Penn, M. (2022). What is a Harpy in Greek Mythology? Retrieved June 30, 2022, from Study.com website: https://study.com/academy/lesson/what-is-a-harpy-in-greek-mythology-definition-origin.html#:~:text=A%20Harpy%20is%20a%20half
- Rettig, N. (1978). BREEDING BEHAVIOR OF THE HARPY EAGLE (HARPIA HARPYJA ). The Auk: A Quarterly Journal of Ornithology. Retrieved from https://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/auk/v095n04/p0629-p0643.pdf
- Shaner, K. 2011. “Harpia harpyja” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed June 30, 2022 at https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Harpia_harpyja/
- Whitehawk Birding. (2020, June 25). Size of Harpy Eagle | Rainforest Top Predator | Whitehawk Birding Blog. Retrieved June 30, 2022, from www.whitehawkbirding.com website: https://www.whitehawkbirding.com/size-of-harpy-eagle/
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