Everything You Wanted to Know About the Harpy Eagle
Unfamiliar to many of us here in the United States and Europe, the Harpy Eagle is one of the largest and most powerful of all eagle species. Very recognizable due to its double-crested head feathers, the Harpy is a feared predator and resides at the top of the food chain throughout its range.
If you’re wondering where the name Harpy comes from, its origins are from Greek mythology where harpies were large winged creatures with sharp claws, a vulture’s body, and a woman’s face. Also, harpy comes from the Greek word, harpe, and refers to a bird of prey mentioned by many Greek scholars.
Both the male and the female have the trademark double crest of gray feathers on their head. The crest rises when the Harpy is in a state of alertness or hostility and gives them a rather mean and aggressive look.
Their plumage is black on top and light gray to white underneath with a broad black band that stretches across their upper breast. The head is gray and their tail feathers are black with three gray bands. Both the male and female have identical plumage.
The yellow feet of the Harpy are as big as a human hand and their talons can be up to five inches long, which makes for quite the weapon.
The Harpy Eagle is larger than both the American Bald Eagle and the Golden Eagle. As with many other birds of prey the female is considerably larger than the male. Females can weigh from 14 to 20 pounds while the smaller male ranges from 10 to 16 pounds. In extreme cases, the female can be twice the size of her male.
Harpy Eagle’s can measure from 34 to 42 inches in length and have a wingspan of between six to seven feet. While this may sound big, their wingspan is actually considered short when compared to other large eagles. The reason for this is because the Harpy is designed for maneuverability and speed, which are needed when flying in a jungle forest environment.
Range & Habitat
The Harpy’s range extends from the tropical rainforest of Mexico and Central America, and across a good swath of South America including Brazil and Argentina. It prefers large areas of uninterrupted forest in which to hunt making the Amazon rainforest the perfect habitat for it.
The Harpy’s build large nests, which makes sense given their size. They prefer to nest high up in the canopy of tall trees usually above one hundred feet. One of their favorite trees to nest in is the Kapok tree, which is one of the tallest tree’s found in South America. The nests consist mostly of sticks and fresh leaves and can measure up to five feet across and four feet deep.
The Harpy Eagle is an active hunter and their prey are mainly tree-dwelling mammals. They are diurnal, meaning they are daytime hunters. The majority of their prey consists of sloths, monkeys, opossums and other birds on occasion.
Research conducted in Brazil at a nesting site showed that sloths made up the majority of this particular pairs diet followed by monkeys.
The speed and maneuverability of the Harpy allow them to hunt in the forest and it is not uncommon for them to fly at upwards of 50 mph and snatch their unsuspecting prey from the tree limbs.
Like other eagle species, the Harpy is monogamous meaning it mates for life. They usually reach their breeding maturity between four to six years of age. The Harpy Eagle has one of the longest breeding periods of any bird of prey. A pair will raise only one chick every two or three years.
A nesting pair will generally lay two eggs and the female will do most of the incubating with the male relieving the female for short stints so she can hunt. The incubating period lasts about eight weeks.
Once the first egg hatches the second egg is ignored and usually does not hatch. After five weeks the eaglet can stand and walk but it will take approximately five to six months before the chick fledges. The parents will continue to feed and care for the chick for up to ten months and the young eagle will remain within the parent’s territory for at least a year.
With no known predators in the wild, the lifespan of the Harpy Eagle is estimated to be between twenty-five and thirty-five years.
Have you ever seen a Harpy Eagle?
The Harpy Eagle is currently listed as a near threatened species across much of its South American range. The biggest threat to the species is from a loss of habitat due to clear-cutting and cattle ranching. Poaching has also been an issue. Captive breeding programs established by the Peregrine Fund have so far kept the Harpy from reaching an endangered status in South America.
In Mexico and Central America it is a different story and here the Harpy is critically endangered. Countries such as Costa Rica and El Salvador have seen the Harpy all but disappear.
The Harpy Eagle faces many challenges going forward. Not the least of these is the fact that the Harpy has such a low reproduction rate, which puts a lot of pressure on the species. This combined with the continuing destruction of the rainforest across the Amazon basin means the road ahead for the Harpy Eagle will be difficult.
- The Harpy Eagle is the national bird of Panama.
- The five-inch talons of the Harpy are the size of a bear claw.
- A female Harpy Eagle can fly with prey up to their body weight (20 lbs).
- They have been known to live for up to forty years in captivity.
- The Harpy can fly up to fifty miles per hour.
- It is not known how many Harpy Eagles remain in the wild but estimates place it at 20,000 to 50,000.
- The Harpy Eagle is considered to be the largest eagle in the America’s and the second largest eagle in the world behind the Philippine Eagle.
Harpy Eagle at the San Diego Zoo
© 2012 Bill De Giulio