A weekly feature named ‘The Hunter’s High Road.’ Each Tuesday check back to see an animal that represents the apex of predatory evolution. Carnivores come in a range of shapes and sizes, using a variety of tricks to catch their prey. Some are powerful, some are beautiful. All are deadly.
The predator I’m looking at today is the Harpy Eagle, a powerful, majestic hunter recorded as the heaviest bird of prey in the world. It earned the name from Greek mythology, in homage to the terrifying winged monsters with a woman’s face. With a distinctive dark grey plumage, the eagle is seen flying high in the canopies of Mexico and northern Argentina. A crest on the head creates a facial disk designed to make it seem even bigger when threatened. It’s suggested smaller grey feathers craft a facial disk to focus sound waves and improve the bird’s hearing.
What makes the bird a formidable predator is the power and agility of which it strikes. The legs of the Harpy Eagle are as thick as a small child’s wrist and the large back talons are 5 inches long, making them larger than grizzly bear claws. The female is known to be twice the size of the male. The Eagle’s wingspan reaches 6.5 feet (2 metres) across, yet they nest up to 90 to 140 feet off the ground making them very hard to see. The birds make their home in kapok/silk cotton trees, using wide spaced branches for a clear flight path. They rely on large sticks to build the nest and line it with animal fur and seedpods to make it stronger. An average Harpy Eagle nest measures 4 feet (1.2) metres across, big enough for a single person to lie across.
Harpy Eagle diets range from tree-dwelling animals like monkeys and sloths to ground based prey like anteaters, possums, coatis, capybaras and peccaries. In some circumstances they will even prey on livestock such as chickens and young pigs. They are large enough to attack red brocket deer, an animal that weighs over 30kgs. The Eagle tears the deer apart as they would be too heavy to carry back to the nest otherwise. Harpy Eagle pairs mate for life and raise a single chick ever 2-3 years. When the first chick hatches the second egg is ignored and usually fails to hatch unless the first perishes. Adults defend their young aggressively, even against humans who disturb the nesting site.
Despite the fabled reputation, Harpy Eagles are under threat from habitat loss due to logging, agriculture and cattle ranching. Hunters take pride in targeting the birds because of their size and fearlessness in the face of people. They’re considered critically endangered in Mexico and Central America.
Steps have been taken by the Peregrine Fund to raise awareness of the bird’s plight. They set up a project to track and collect data on female Harpy Eagles to determine environmental factors and breeding. Volunteers are welcome to give donations to help further the project and make the environment more sustainable for the Eagles.
Harpy Eagles are among the most elegant and awe inspiring birds in the world. To have this great hunter disappear would be a tragedy that can be avoided.