The harpy eagle Harpia harpyjais among the world's most impressive raptors. In his book
Birds of Colombia, Steven
Hilty calls it "the world's most powerful bird of prey."
The adult bird stands just over three feet (100 cm) high, with a wingspan 6 feet (180 cm) or more. They're
among the heaviest flying raptors; females may weigh up to 20 pounds (9 kg). (American condors weigh up to 23
pounds.) Males are rather smaller, 10 pounds (4.5 kg) on average.
It shares features common to most members of its family, Accipitridae. It has a strong, hooked bill colored
black, and relatively large, piercing eyes. The broad wings and long tail serve it well in flight, as it
cruises above the canopy looking for prey. Its powerful yellow feet enable it to lock onto the hapless
victim, which stands no chance once aloft in the bird's grasp. The powerful talons are almost the length
of a man's hand, up to 5 inches (13 cm) long, or about twice the length of a bald eagle talon.
The harpy eagle's plumage is predominantly gray, black and white. Most obvious distinguishing feature is
a black forked crest of feathers, which is raised when the bird is stimulated. The neck and upperparts are
black, merging to white underparts, with black barring on the thighs, above the scaly yellow legs.
From below, the flight feathers are strongly banded black and white, distinguishing it from a similar
species, the crested eagle Morphnus guianensis.
The immature bird goes through several intermediate plumages before reaching the adult phase, which can
hinder identification in the field.
It is the largest and most powerful eagle found in the Americas, usually inhabiting tropical lowland
rainforests in the emergent layer.
HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION
The harpy eagle is found only where populations of its favored prey are abundant. It is restricted to lowland
rainforest, rarely found above 2,500 feet (800 m).
It inhabits tropical lowland rainforests and may occasionally be seen soaring low over the canopy, but it
usually stays within the emergent layer. Here, its agility is evident, as the bird rapidly flies among and
around tree crowns and branches.
Thus, sightings in the wild are rare, and the harpy eagle is most often seen as it crosses a river or forest
clearing. (Most likely, a reported sighting will be the crested eagle that soars frequently and perches high
Although locally rare, the harpy eagle is widespread in undisturbed forest where human activity is minimal.
Its geographic range extends from southeast Mexico to southern Brazil, across Amazonia west of the Andes.
FEEDING AND DIET
This harpy eagle is a key predator of monkeys, sloths and other large arboreal mammals. It preys on other
birds and arboreal reptiles, and terrestrial mammals when the opportunity arises. Upon spying potential prey,
they fly fast through branches, 50 mph or more, and strike in a crushing blow. The bird can carry prey up to
half its own body weight.
Every two or three years, the harpy eagle adult pair constructs a large nest of jumbled sticks. It favors the
crown of a large kapok tree (Ceiba spp., see photo), perhaps
120 feet (36 m) from the ground. It lays one or two eggs. Incubation takes about eight weeks.
While nesting, the birds bring twigs of fresh vegetation to the nest. This may reduce parasites and insects
in the nest, or just provide a more comfortable nest for the young. If two eggs are laid, the parents only
feed the first to hatch and stop incubating the second egg. After hatching, the chick grows fast, fledging in
five to six months. The adults feed their chick for six months or more.
The greatest threat to the harpy eagle is loss of habitat and decline of prey species populations. It is
increasingly rare and is on the IUCN red list as threatened.
Local people hunt them, either to sell the body parts or because they believe the bird is competition
Despite legal protection in several countries, authorities are hindered enforcing protection because of its remote
Early South American explorers named the harpy eagle from a Greek word, referring either to a raptorial
bird or a mythical monster. Scholars of ancient Greece, such as Aristotle, mention a bird of prey,
harpe, perhaps referring to an eagle. In Greek mythology a harpy was a winged wind spirit that took the dead to the
underworld, Hades. The demon-like spirit is depicted with an eagle or vulture's body and a human face.
Artists working on the Harry Potter movies, also used the harpy eagle for inspiration. Fawkes the Phoenix in Harry Potter and the Chamber of
Secrets and Buckbeak, one of Hagrid's hippogriffs in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of
Azkaban both resemble the harpy eagle.
The harpy eagle is the national bird of Panama.