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The Giant Eagle

Updated on May 16, 2014

The Giant Eagle

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The Skull of the Giant Eagle

The skull was long and narrow with an elongated beak.
The skull was long and narrow with an elongated beak. | Source

Description

A mere eight centuries ago, New Zealand was home to the largest eagle to have ever evolved, a truly giant eagle that would have undoubtedly terrorised the first Maori settlers. Maori folklore to this day, speaks of a huge bird called The Pouakai that would swoop down and carry off people to consume in its nest, maybe this elaborate myth reflects a vague folk memory passed down through the generations.

In reality, this giant eagle, referred to by science as Haast’s Eagle was not big enough to be able carry any large animal, but by our modern standards, this bird was a true colossus. As is usual in raptors, the females were much larger than the males, weighing in at up to 28Ib's and with a 10 foot wingspan to match. Its skull was long and narrow, with an elongated beak specifically adapted for digging deep into the flesh of its prey. The ten foot long wings were actually relative short in comparison to its body size, indicating that they were primarily adapted for flapping, so unlike almost all of its raptor brethren, it was probably incapable of soaring. Instead its wings were adapted for fast and manoeuvrable flight through the dense forests of New Zealand’s South Island. The giant eagle was probably around the maximum size needed for flapping flight, any bigger it would have had to exclusively rely on gliding, similar to the giant pterosaurs that existed alongside the dinosaurs.

Its legs were probably better suited to gripping onto prey, rather than perching. Its talons were as large as tigers claws, their length combined with the structure of the foot meant that they more than capable of delivering a much greater force than other raptors. When striking its prey, the talons were capable of penetrating several centimetres into flesh, and could even break bones. It’s not known exactly what the giant eagle sounded like, but looking into Maori mythology may give us a valuable insight, according to them, the great Bird made the following cry ‘Hokioi-Hokioi’ .

The Giant Eagle: The Monster we met

Attacking the Giant Moa

The giant eagle was capable of attacking the largest birds to have walked the Earth.
The giant eagle was capable of attacking the largest birds to have walked the Earth. | Source

Behaviour, Habitat and Range

The giant eagle was extremely unusual in raptor terms, as it specialised in killing animals considerably larger than itself, as opposed to its contemporaries who kill animals smaller than themselves, because of the need to be able to carry off prey items before anything bigger, or with sharper claws comes along. The giant eagle had no such problems as it was the only raptor to ever be the top predator in its ecosystem, the only real competition came from other aerial predators. The largest terrestrial predator in New Zealand was an ancient reptile called tuatara, weighing in at just a couple of pounds, it preferred to feast on insects and other small invertebrates.

The giant eagle killed a range of flightless birds, ranging from small moas weighing in at just a couple of pounds, all the way to one of the largest birds to ever walk the Earth, the giant moa, a ten foot high, 450Ib, lumbering version of the ostrich. Like other raptors, the giant eagle was not averse to feasting on carrion or taking advantage of any trapped animals. The eagle’s hunting strategy was to position itself on a high perch, scan the ground for any suitable prey. Once, spotted it would leap into the air, then swoop down at a speed of roughly 50mph. If tackling a large flightless bird, it would aim for the bird’s hindquarters; the resulting strike would be the equivalent of a concrete block dropped from the top of an eight storey building, inflicting deep wounds and massive internal bleeding. The moa would probably have died quickly from shock or loss of blood. Fossils have been found of giant moas with huge gashes and punctures on their pelvis, they also show how the eagle would have utilised its long beak to gain access to the carcass. The giant eagle’s long legs ensured that it would always be well cushioned against any impact, thus preventing it from coming to harm. Due to the lack of competition, the giant eagle could remain at a kill site for days on end, gradually devouring its meal.

Mankind first discovered New Zealand, around 800 years ago, for us it was one of the last habitable landmasses to be discovered, and what a place to discover, a land of evolutionary oddities, a land ruled by birds rather than mammals. The earliest Maori settlers left no direct evidence that they were preyed upon by the giant eagle, all we have are a few mythic clues buried in their folklore. But it seems likely; imagine a person walking through the dense forest. To a giant eagle, the person looks odd, but is still a two legged animal, thus making them fair game. If a giant eagle was capable of taking down a 400Ib plus Moa, then it would have experienced little problem in tackling a person.

The existence of the giant eagle may explain why some of New Zealand’s surviving flightless birds, such as the kiwi and the kakapo live nocturnal lives. The giant eagle was a diurnal, apex predator, capable of tackling any species of flightless bird. The kiwi and kakapo among others adopted a nocturnal existence as the best way to hide from the giant avian predator. So, even today the eagle’s ghost lingers, six centuries after its extinction. Adaptation to nocturnal living is a strategy used throughout the history of life, by many creatures to avoid predators. During the age of the dinosaurs, our ancestors, the early Mammals took to living in the dark, in order to escape the detection of the giant reptiles.

At this time, nothing is known about the reproductive strategy of the giant eagle, due to the fact that no eggs or chicks have ever been found. But looking at modern eagles, may give us at least some insight. Most modern eagles lay two or three eggs in a huge nest built in a huge tree with a massive canopy, or high up on a rock ledge. With eagle chicks, the fight to survive is very competitive, and usually the weakest ones end up succumbing to death.

All of the fossils found thus far, have been recovered from the South Island, and analysis of the environment suggest that the giant eagle inhabited dense forest, shrub lands and grasslands on river floodplains. It is thought that the giant eagle was capable of living of up to 20 years; they may have paired for life, occupying vast territories ranging up to 150 square miles.

From Tiny to Gigantic

The giant eagle's foot and talons alongside those of the little eagle.
The giant eagle's foot and talons alongside those of the little eagle. | Source

The Giant Eagle's Ancestors

The little eagle
The little eagle | Source
The booted eagle
The booted eagle | Source

History and Extinction

The giant eagle’s ancestors originally reached New Zealand by flying over from Australia. Recent DNA analysis indicates that the giant eagle evolved from the little eagle and the booted eagle as recently 700,000 years ago to 1.8 million years ago. This is an incredible piece of information to digest, because it means that the giant eagle increased its weight by 10-15 times in a relatively short space of time, in fact it is the fastest evolutionary increase in weight by any vertebrate. Only in New Zealand, a land devoid of other large predators was such a feat possible. During the last Ice Age, it ranged all throughout the South Island, but around 15,000 years ago, coinciding with the end of glacial conditions, its range shrunk to the Southern and Eastern parts of the Island.

Eight centuries ago, the giant eagle’s long tenure as New Zealand’s top predator came to an end with the arrival of humans from Polynesia. In time, these people would forge their own culture and come to be known as the Maori. They quickly set to work, clearing forest to make way for agriculture, hunting the flightless birds with ease. The flightless birds were fearless even as a spear wielding hunter approached them, none of New Zealand’s strange creatures had ever seen a human before; to us they would have appeared almost tame enough that you could touch them. humans killed the moa- the Maori word for chicken with great efficiency, half a million of them, across 11 species would disappear in just over 100 years. Humans may have also hunted the giant eagle directly, maybe out of fear for their own lives. Even so, the loss of so many flightless birds spelt disaster for the giant eagle, extinction was inevitable. The last fossils date from around 1400 AD. Although a few accounts from the 19th century speak of large eagles living in mountainous areas, although I think that the likelihood of it being a remnant giant eagle population is remote, because of the lack of suitable prey. Today, the Eagle’s legacy lives on through folklore, rock art paintings dating from the 13th and 14th centuries, and the nocturnal behaviour of some of the surviving flightless birds. With its extinction, the world lost one of its most extraordinary animals.

Homage to a Monster

A sculpture of the giant eagle erected on the Macraes Mine site near Macraes Flat, New Zealand
A sculpture of the giant eagle erected on the Macraes Mine site near Macraes Flat, New Zealand | Source

© 2012 James Kenny

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    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Wow, must have been awesome to live there, I've always wanted to go. I'm a keen birder and New Zealand is the land of the birds. Thanks for popping by, Richawriter.

    • Richawriter profile image

      Richard J ONeill 5 years ago from Bangkok, Thailand

      Great hub Jkenny!

      That sure was one big Eagle huh.

      I used to live in New Zealand. What a magical place it is. I remember trekking through the bush and listening to the voice of the forest. Wonderful.

      I'll never forget my first encounter with a wild boar. Let's just say there aren't many times when I have run faster than I did that day!

      Well done on another excellent Hub!

      Peace.

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      Heather Woods 5 years ago

      Thank you Norris, at least you know a lot of information.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks for dropping by, Norris. Really appreciate it.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Heather, you can still use the eggs, but make sure they're well cooked and wash your hands thoroughly after handling them.

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      Norris bottomly 5 years ago

      My chickens had similar problems just see a vet an get medication for them however the eggs are perfectly fine to eat . + Jkenny thank you for an interesting hub .

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      Heather Woods 5 years ago

      Hi, my chickens got diaroeha is it still okay to eat the eggs?

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Heather, do you mean in general terms or in relation to keeping them?

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      Heather Woods 5 years ago

      What do you know about chickens??

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      No problem aviannovice. Glad to be of help, it was such an amazing bird, although I bet the people of New Zealand are glad its extinct.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Very nice historical work. Now I know a little more about a bird from New Zealand that is now extinct.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Movie Master, its hard to imagine a bird witch such a massive wingspan, although I think the condor and the wandering albatross come pretty close. What amazes me is that there were prehistoric birds with wingspans approaching 20 feet, and there was a species of pterosaur with a wingspan of nearly 40 feet, that's the size of a small aircraft. Anyway, thanks again for visiting, really appreciate it.

    • Movie Master profile image

      Movie Master 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      I had never heard of the Giant Eagle before, a wingspan of 10 foot, wow that's huge!

      A well researched and interesting hub, thank you and voted up.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks theclevercat. What's interesting is that the Maori bought actual chickens to New Zealand, but they found the Moa easier to hunt, hence the name 'Moa' meaning chicken. It's a shame the Moa are extinct, they made ostriches look tiny, I'd loved to see one.

    • theclevercat profile image

      Rachel Vega 5 years ago from Massachusetts

      Oh my gosh! Very cool. So well researched and laid out. I love reading Hubs and learning about something I never knew existed.

      Plus, "chicken with great efficiency" was a fun thing to add and it made me lol! Thanks, JKenny!

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks for visiting Peggy, it was a fantastic bird, shame its extinct though. I can't imagine what the first Maori thought, when they saw it; and to think they still speak of it today. I wanted to write about it, as I have particular fondness for Raptors, and this is one is my favourite.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi James,

      What an amazing hub filled to the brim with information about a now extinct bird of ferocious magnitude. Whoever filmed that video did a great job showing what it might have been like for the first human engagement with that predator bird. Enjoyed this as I love learning about natural history. Voting this up, useful, interesting and will share with others.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks sgbrown, I only heard of the Giant Eagle, when I watched the 'Monsters we Met' documentary, then I read up about it. I'm glad you liked it. Thanks for the social share, much appreciated.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks cclitgirl. It is a wonderful bird. It would have been awesome to see one for real. Thanks a lot for the social share.

    • sgbrown profile image

      Sheila Brown 5 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

      Great hub! I had never heard of the Giant Eagle before. Very interesting and well written hub! Voted up, awesome and SOCIALLY SHARING!

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      Wow. It seems like it was a beautiful bird. Very interesting and glad to learn something new. I love eagles in general. Voted up and SOCIALLY SHARED.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks, MP50. I really enjoyed writing this. I am glad you enjoyed it. I like your avatar by the way, really cool.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks very much Brett, glad you liked it. I enjoyed reading your article on sharing. You're an example for everyone to follow.

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      MP50 5 years ago

      Never heard of this Giant Eagle before, found this Hub interesting and informative. Voted up and shared.

    • Brett.Tesol profile image

      Brett Caulton 5 years ago from Thailand

      Wow, and impressive creature ... learned something new today. People complain about seagulls, imagine the mess these guys make! lol

      SOCIALLY SHARING and voted up.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      No Problem and Thank you.

    • grandmapearl profile image

      Connie Smith 5 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      H JKenny, Thank you for telling me about the Teratorn. I had never heard of that bird before. That would make sense that the Indians' legend would revolve around such a large animal, especially one that took to the sky. You always have such interesting information!

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi grandmapeal, I've heard of the legend of the Thunderbird. There was actually a Bird called the Teratorn, which lived in North America around the time the first Native Americans arrived. It resembled a Condor, but was much bigger, its wingspan was in excess of 20 feet. Maybe the legend reflects some sort of Indian folk memory.

    • grandmapearl profile image

      Connie Smith 5 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Hi JKenny! An amazing account of such an awesome predator, very well-written and illustrated. Nice job. I love to learn about animals, especially birds. This reminds me of the Native American legend (personally I think it probably did actual exist) of the Thunderbird. It was said to have carried off Indian children as well as animals to feed its young. I imagine that it was probably about the same size as the giant eagle in your Hub. Voted Up and awesome!

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Hollie, appreciate it.

    • Hollie Thomas profile image

      Hollie Thomas 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Wow, James, what an excellent informative hub. Very detailed and well written.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Cat R, glad you liked it. Thanks for the follow and fan mail as well.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks cat on a soapbox, really appreciate you dropping by.

    • Cat R profile image

      Cat R 5 years ago from North Carolina, U.S.

      Great article!

    • cat on a soapbox profile image

      Catherine Tally 5 years ago from Los Angeles

      As a nature lover, I found your hub fascinating too! well-researched with interesting facts and images- thank you!

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks everythingdazzles. Glad you liked it.

    • everythingdazzles profile image

      Janelle 5 years ago from Houston

      Very interesting! Loved the picture too.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Letitia, much appreciated, and thanks for the follow as well.

    • LetitiaFT profile image

      LetitiaFT 5 years ago from Paris via California

      Fascinating! Thanks!