The harpy eagle is a magnificent bird of prey that can stand up to 3 feet 5 inches in height. Resting happily at the top of its food chain, the harpy lives on (among other things) a diet of lizards, birds, rabbits, monkeys, and even sloths.
It also just so happens to be the largest eagle in the world.
These rare beasts inhabit the upper canopies of tropical lowland rainforests in Central America. Unfortunately, due to hunting and deforestation, the species could be in jeopardy of extinction.
“[T]hey are top predators,” explained Belize Zoo’s director Sharon Matola, speaking to 7 News Belize, “so there were never a huge amount of these eagles because they are solitary, large birds of prey.”
“[I]f their habitats are altered or degraded,” she continued, “it only takes one shotgun to eliminate a mating pair. If that keeps happening over time, they are considered to be extirpated from Central America, meaning no more.”
The harpy eagle is an extraordinary-looking bird. It sports a double crest of feathers on its crown that fan out when the bird senses danger. A disk of smaller, gray-colored feathers around the face helps localize the eagle’s keen sense of hearing when it is time to hunt.
According to the San Diego Zoo, which has been exhibiting harpy eagles since 1940, early South American explorers first named the bird after the harpies of Greek mythology. Harpies were terrifying, winged creatures with the head of a woman, while the harpy eagle, similarly, possesses a fearsome reputation.
Harpy eagles often mate for life, and females lay just one or two eggs at a time every two to three years. The capable harpy can reach speeds of up to 50 miles an hour when silently diving for prey, which it catches and crushes with its up-to-5-inch-long talons.
The talons of an adult harpy are comparable to, if not bigger than, the claws of an adult grizzly bear.
In keeping with its gargantuan size, the harpy eagle’s wingspan can reach up to 6 feet, 6 inches, yet the formidable bird of prey weighs only 8.5 to 20 pounds (approx. 4 to 9 kg). Females are significantly larger than their male counterparts.
In 2010, BBC cameraman James Aldred was attacked by a protective female harpy while attempting to secure a camera inside her nest for a documentary in the remote Orinoco rainforest in Venezuela. Aldred survived, but his neck protection was punctured by the eagle’s talons, while his communication headgear was destroyed.
The documentary’s producer, Fergus Beeley, later spoke to The Guardian. “I’m amazed by the harpy eagle,” he said. “These are incredibly intelligent creatures. To kill monkeys, they have to be as intelligent as them, to outwit and ambush them.”
“And,” Beeley added, “it’s indisputably the world’s most powerful eagle. It has wrists and feet as big as mine. Most birds of prey are frightened of people, but this one is not.”
Indeed, in recent years the harpy eagle has become well known in popular culture owing to its fearsome prowess. Perhaps most notably, the harpy was the inspiration behind “Fawkes” the phoenix in the “Harry Potter” film series.
As of January 2020, harpy eagles still favor the canopies of silk-cotton trees in rainforests from Mexico all the way down to northern Argentina. However, the largely nonmigratory bird is rapidly losing its precious habitat due to human intervention.
The harpy was on the verge of extinction in 2009, as per 7 News Belize. However, a number of breeding and conservation programs, including a partnership between the Peregrine Fund and Belize Zoo, and another in San Diego, are attempting to reverse this trend.
Belize Zoo’s first participant eagle, a male named “Panama,” inaugurated their harpy eagle conservation program in 2003. “If we are responsible, if we manage and protect our forests,” director Sharon Matola explained, “[harpy eagles] will be here in the future.”
“I am excited about that,” she said.