Meet the Harpy Eagle — a Bird With a Wingspan the Size of an NBA Player
You may have seen this giant, human-looking bird on social media over the years and wondered if it's real. We're here to tell you that it is.
With its strikingly large size and unique hunting techniques, the harpy eagle has captured the imagination of people for centuries.
What's in a Name?
"Harpy" is not a play on words for "happy," though some believe that is how the harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja) got its name.
South American explorers originated the moniker, which is a nod to the Harpies of Greek mythology, goddesses with human heads and bird bodies.
The Home of the Harpy Eagle
The harpy eagle is native to South America and can be found in Brazil, Ecuador, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru and northeast Argentina. Some birds can also be found in Mexico and Central America, though their populations are much smaller there.
Both the San Diego Zoo and Miami Zoo have harpy breeding programs in the U.S.
Harpy Eagles Are Massive in Size
Harpy eagles are among the largest eagles in the world and are the most dominant raptor in the Amazon.
This hunting carnivore and apex predator has a wingspan of between 5.75 and 7.3 feet, and it can reach a top speed of 50 miles per hour. The harpy stands up to 40 inches tall. Females weigh more than males at 13 to 20 pounds, while males weigh between 9 and 11 pounds.
The Harpy Eagle Diet
Harpy eagles generally live off tree-dwelling mammals, including sloths and monkeys, but they've also been known to feast on porcupines, squirrels, opossums, anteaters, armadillos and kinkajous, among other small animals.
A hungry harpy may also feast on other birds, including parrots, or reptiles such as iguanas, tegus and snakes.
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How the Harpy Hunts
Harpy eagles hunt from high above the ground using a technique known as "perch hunting." This allows the eagle to scan for prey resting near them. The bird's extraordinary visual and hearing senses allow it to locate prey resting hundreds of feet away.
Once they spot an unsuspecting animal, they quickly swoop toward it and kill it with their massive talons.
Claws to Be Reckoned With
You may have heard that a harpy's claws are as big as a bear's. Well, it's not a myth. Their talons can grow up to 5 inches or more, rivaling those of grizzly or Kodiak bears.
Their formidable talons can kill prey weighing more than 30 pounds, and the bird has enough power to grip and lift prey equal to their own weight.
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Harpy Eagles Together Forever
Harpies live up to 45 years and are monogamous. Once a pair bonds, they'll stay together for the rest of their lives. They reach adulthood when they are about 5 years old, which means they can stay together for up to 40 years.
The birds are not migratory — instead, they establish their territory in one place with tall trees that should provide all the food they'll need for years to come.
Parenthood and Harpy Eagles
The harpy lays one or two eggs at a time and will do so every two to three years. Typically only one of the two eggs survives; researchers believe the second egg serves as a backup in case the first doesn't make it.
Harpy moms incubate their eggs for about 55 days. Once the first chick hatches, the harpy stops incubating the second egg, and it will not develop. However, if the first egg doesn't hatch, the harpy has a second chance at a new life with the second egg.
Harpy parents work hard to protect their offspring. A harpy mom will spend the first four months of the chick's life in the nest, while a harpy father goes out looking for food for his family.
Harpies and Humans
Harpy eagles don't typically attack humans, but you may want to keep a safe distance from one nonetheless, as they can actually kill you.
The bird is very protective of its nest, and in 2010, a BBC cameraman, who was setting up a camera to film the bird, was dive-bombed. The bird ripped through his neck protection and knocked him and his mic to the ground.
Building a Family Home
When getting ready to start a family, harpies build giant nests out of sticks, and by giant, we mean the size of a double bed — one nest can contain over 300 branches. This "bed" is about 150 feet off the ground!
Harpies regularly bring fresh green twigs to the nest to keep it free of insects and parasites.
A Noisy Bird
Harpy eagles typically don't make much noise. They are what you would call the "strong, silent type."
When they do vocalize, they do so through a variety of calls, including a loud, high-pitched whistle used for communicating with their offspring and mate. For such a big bird, the noise they make is not too intense.
They Are Panama's National Bird
Yes, the harpy eagle is Panama's national bird. While they are smaller in numbers in this country than in others, they can be found in Darien National Park in Panama's easternmost province of Darien.
To Panamanians, the bird embodies the country's power and strength.
If They're OK, We're OK
Harpies have no natural predators and are, therefore, at the top of the food chain in their rainforest habitat. If they are doing well, this indicates that they have enough food to survive on and that their ecosystem — the rainforest — is thriving.
When harpy numbers go down, it's a sign to scientists that their food sources are depleting or their territory is becoming smaller.
Harpy Eagles Are a Vulnerable Species
Currently, there are between 118,000 and 225,000 harpy eagles in the world, and the species is classified as near threatened.
Deforestation is the harpy eagle's greatest threat, but they are also shot for meat or because people believe they threaten livestock.