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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.

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 in trees.)

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.

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 for food.

Despite legal protection in several countries, authorities are hindered enforcing protection because of its remote inaccessible habitat.

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.


Wikipedia: American Harpy Eagle
Birds in Suriname: Harpy Eagle
Peregrine Fund: Harpy Eagle
Iwokrama: Harpy Eagle, Powerful & Majestic
San Diego Zoo: Harpy Eagle The Harpy Eagle
Animal Diversity Web: Harpia harpyja
National Geographic Channel: Conservationists Fight to Save Harpy Eagles
IUCN Red List: Harpia harpyja
American Birding Association: Harpy Eagle Project
Gale Schools: Harpy Eagle
Hawk Conservancy Trust: Harpy Eagle - Harpia harpyja
Biodiversity in Belize: Harpy Eagle reintroduction in Belize
USAID: Youngsters Push to Save Eagle
Neil Rettig Productions: Harpy Facts
Enchanted Learning: Harpy Eagle
Yasuni Rainforest Campaign: Harpy Eagle
Belizean Journeys: Much to Harp About Harpy Eagle
Worldwide Nature Artists: Observing & Portraying the Endangered Harpy Eagle & its Habitat
Galetti, M. and de Carvalho O. (2000) Sloths in the Diet of a Harpy Eagle Nestling in Eastern Amazon. Wilson Bulletin 112: 535-6
Gil-da-Costa, R. et al. (2003) Rapid acquisition of an alarm response by a neotropical primate to a newly introduced avian predator. Proc. Biol. Sci. 270: 605-610

Mainly photos
Flickr: Harpy Eagle
Pbase: Chris Sloan Harpy Eagle
Discover Life: Harpia harpyja
Skulls Unlimited: Harpy Eagle Skull and Skeleton Harpy Eagle stamps
Mongabay: Seeing The Harpy Eagle—a peak experience
Janet Zinn: Harpy Eagle pair

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