Harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja)

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Female harpy eagle at nest in kapok tree
IUCN Red List species status – Near Threatened NEAR
THREATENED

Top facts

  • With a two-metre wingspan, strong, hooked beak and massive talons, the harpy eagle is one of the largest and most powerful birds of prey in the world.
  • The harpy eagle’s huge talons can be as large as a bear’s claws, and its legs can be almost as thick as a man’s wrist.
  • The harpy eagle is the national bird of Panama.
  • The harpy eagle is named after a mythological creature that had the face of a woman and the body of a bird.
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Harpy eagle fact file

Harpy eagle description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderFalconiformes
FamilyAccipitridae
GenusHarpia (1)

A huge, iconic eagle of the rainforests of Central and South America, the harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja) is one of the largest and most powerful birds of prey in the world (3) (4) (6). This impressive species is named after the ‘harpies’ of Greek mythology, which were winged monsters with sharp claws and a woman’s face (6) (7).

The harpy eagle has a long tail and broad, rounded wings that can span up to two metres across. As in many other forest raptors, its wings are relatively small for its size, giving the harpy eagle great agility and enabling it to dodge through branches and trees while flying below the forest canopy (2) (8) (9). The harpy eagle’s large black bill is strongly hooked, and its legs and toes are large and robust, with massive talons (2) (3) (4) (6). Together with its great size, these imposing weapons make the harpy eagle a formidable predator (4).

The adult harpy eagle has blackish upperparts, a grey head and neck, and a distinctive dark, double-pointed crest, which is usually raised. The feathers of the face form a facial ‘disc’. The underparts of the harpy eagle are white, with a broad black band across the chest and black barring on the thighs. The tail is black with three greyish bands and a greyish-white tip, while the undersides of the wings are barred black and white (2) (3) (4) (6). The harpy eagle has greyish to brown eyes, a black cere and yellow legs and feet (3) (4).

The male and female harpy eagle are similar in appearance, although the female is significantly larger, weighing up to twice as much as the male (2) (4) (6) (8). Juveniles are whitish to grey overall, with a whitish crest, brownish-grey upperparts and several dark bars on the tail (2) (3) (4). The young bird gradually becomes darker with age until acquiring its full adult plumage at about four years old (4).

The harpy eagle’s call is a plaintive, penetrating scream, described as ‘wheeeeeeee’ or ‘wheeeeoooooo’, which is repeated several times (2) (3) (4). Juvenile harpy eagles which are still dependent on the adults can often be observed begging for food by raising their wings in a shrug-like movement, while repeating a high-pitched ‘whee-e-e-e, whee-e-e-e(2) (9). Despite this eagle’s enormous size, it is a surprisingly inconspicuous species (10) and is usually only seen when it crosses rivers or forest openings (3).

Also known as
American harpy eagle.
Synonyms
Thrasaetus harpyia.
Spanish
Aguila Arpía, Aguila Harpía, Arpía, Arpía Mayor, Harpía.
Size
Length: 89 - 102 cm (2) (3)
Wingspan: 176 - 224 cm (2) (4)
Male weight: 4 - 4.8 kg (2) (4)
Female weight: 6 - 9 kg (2)
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Harpy eagle biology

A powerful predator, the harpy eagle hunts a range of medium-sized animals, particularly arboreal mammals such as monkeys and sloths, as well as some terrestrial mammals such as deer, peccaries, agoutis (Dasyprocta species), foxes and armadillos (2) (3) (4) (6) (10) (12). The harpy eagle also preys on a variety of birds and reptiles, including macaws, curassows, snakes and iguanas (2) (3) (4) (6).

The harpy eagle usually hunts by watching for potential prey from a perch, before flying through the forest with remarkable speed and agility and snatching its victim from the trees (2) (3) (4) (10). Most prey is taken to the top of a tree to be eaten, but heavier items may be dragged to a fallen trunk (2) (4). Due to their smaller size, male harpy eagles take smaller prey than females, but an adult female is capable of carrying prey remains weighing up to three or four kilograms back to the nest (2) (4) (12). The harpy eagle’s excellent hearing and the arrangement of its facial feathers into a disc shape may help it to locate prey by sound (8).

A monogamous species (6), the harpy eagle is usually seen alone or in pairs (2). This species has been recorded breeding between April and November in Brazil, Argentina and Guyana (2), but may potentially breed in any month of the year (3).

Both the male and female harpy eagle help to construct the nest, which is a large platform of sticks, built high in a tall emergent tree (2) (3) (4) (10) and lined and decorated with green leaves (2) (4) (12). Two dull white eggs are usually laid, and are incubated by the female for about 56 days (4) (6) (10) (12). In almost every case, only a single chick survives (4) (6) (10). The male harpy eagle brings food to the nest every few days during the incubation period, and also while the chick is being raised (4) (10) (12). The young harpy eagle fledges at about 4.5 to 6 months old (2) (4) (6) (10) (12).

After fledging, the juvenile harpy eagle remains close to the nest site and is dependent on the adults for a further 8 to 12 months (2) (4). The juvenile may remain close to the nest until it reaches two years of age (13). This slow development of the young means that the adult pair cannot breed more than once every two to three years (2) (3) (4) (6).

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Harpy eagle range

The harpy eagle has an extensive distribution across Central and South America, from southern Mexico southwards to Paraguay, southern Brazil and north-eastern Argentina (2) (3) (4) (6) (10) (11). However, it is quite sparsely and patchily distributed across its range and is thought to be locally extinct in some areas, particularly in parts of Central America (4) (11).

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Harpy eagle habitat

Primarily a lowland species, the harpy eagle typically inhabits tropical and subtropical evergreen forest below elevations of about 900 metres (2) (3) (4) (11), although it may occasionally be found up to 2,000 metres. This species is able to adapt to a degree of habitat disturbance, as long as sufficient forest patches remain (2) (4) (10) (11).

The harpy eagle usually moves about within the forest canopy and rarely soars above it (2) (3) (4) (10).

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Harpy eagle status

The harpy eagle is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1) and is listed on Appendix I of CITES (5).

IUCN Red List species status – Near Threatened

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Harpy eagle threats

The harpy eagle is widespread and is believed to be relatively common in the remoter parts of the Amazon basin (11). However, its populations are declining as a result of habitat loss and hunting (4) (11), and this species has been lost from much of its former range in Central America (4) (10) (11) (14).

Although it is relatively tolerant of disturbance to its habitat, the harpy eagle is still under threat from deforestation and the fragmentation of its habitat (4) (11) (14). The removal of the large, commercially valuable trees in which it nests is a particular threat, and the harpy eagle’s preference for staying inside the forest canopy may mean that it is unlikely to cross open areas and move between isolated forest patches (14).

Hunting is also a serious threat to the harpy eagle, both for trophies and because this large eagle may be perceived as a danger to livestock (4) (6) (10) (11) (14). Unfortunately, the ease with which the harpy eagle can be approached makes it an attractive target for hunters (3) (11), and the threat posed by hunting is exacerbated by this species’ naturally low densities and slow reproductive rate (4) (11) (14). The harpy eagle is also sometimes captured to be kept in captivity as a pet or as a curiosity (10).

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Harpy eagle conservation

Any international trade in the harpy eagle is banned under its listing on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (5). Many reports of this charismatic eagle come from protected areas, but education programmes are needed to change local attitudes towards this species and ensure that the harpy eagle itself is also protected. Ideally, local people should be included in conservation efforts, with such an approach already proving beneficial with the community of Infierno in Madre de Dios, Peru and the Embera and Wounaan communities in Darien, Panama (14).

A number of projects are underway to help conserve the harpy eagle, and have included research, nest monitoring, and breeding the harpy eagle in captivity for release into the wild (6) (10) (14) (15). Successful reintroductions have already taken place in Panama and Belize (11) (15).

Other recommended conservation measures for the harpy eagle include protecting more of its habitat, monitoring its populations and those of its prey, clarifying its ecological requirements and investigating the densities and home range sizes of breeding pairs (4) (6) (11). Long-term studies of both wild and captive-bred harpy eagles, such as those carried out by The Peregrine Fund in Panama and PCAHE (Harpy Eagle Conservation Programme) in Ecuador, will provide vital information for the management and protection of this awesome bird of prey (15) (16).

View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.
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Find out more

Find out more about the harpy eagle and its conservation:

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Authentication

Authenticated (27/12/12) by Darío Fernández-Bellon, Raptor Conservation Project, BirdWatch Ireland / BirdLife.
https://sites.google.com/site/dfernandezbellon/

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Glossary

Arboreal
An animal which lives or spends a large amount of time in trees.
Cere
In birds, an area of skin at the base of the upper mandible of the beak, surrounding the nostrils.
Evergreen forest
Forest consisting mainly of evergreen trees, which retain leaves all year round. This is in contrast to deciduous trees, which completely lose their leaves for part of the year.
Home range
The area occupied by an animal during routine activities, which is not actively defended.
Incubate
To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
Monogamous
Having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.
Raptors
Birds of prey.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (July, 2012)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Ferguson-Lees, J. and Christie, D.A. (2001) Raptors of the World. Helm Identification Guides, A & C Black Publishers, London.
  3. Hilty, S.L. (2003) Birds of Venezuela. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
  4. Schulenberg, T.S. (2009) Harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja). In: Schulenberg, T.S. (Ed.) Neotropical Birds Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
    http://neotropical.birds.cornell.edu/portal/1048?p_p_spp=20613
  5. CITES (July, 2012)
    http://www.cites.org/
  6. Aves de Rapina do Brasil - Harpia (gavião-real) (July, 2012)
    http://www.avesderapinabrasil.com/harpia_harpyja.htm
  7. The Peregrine Fund - Harpy eagle (July, 2012)
    http://www.peregrinefund.org/subsites/explore-raptors-2001/eagles/harpyeag.html
  8. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1994) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 2: New World Vultures to Guineafowl. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  9. Fernández-Bellon, D. (December, 2012) Pers. comm.
  10. Global Raptor Information Network: Species Account - Harpy eagle (July, 2012)
    http://globalraptors.org/grin/SpeciesResults.asp?specID=8040
  11. BirdLife International - Harpy eagle (July, 2012)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=3526
  12. Rettig, N.L. (1978) Breeding behavior of the harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja). The Auk, 95(4): 629-643.
  13. Muñiz-López, R., Limiñana, R., Cortés, G.D. and Urios, V. (2012) Movements of harpy eagles Harpia harpyja during their first two years after hatching. Bird Study, 59: 509-514.
  14. Vargas, J. de J. et al. (2006) Estado y distribución actual del águila arpía (Harpia harpyja) en Centro y Sur América. Ornitología Neotropical, 17: 39-55.
  15. The Peregrine Fund: Conservation Projects - Harpy eagle (July, 2012)
    http://www.peregrinefund.org/projects/harpy-eagle
  16. Muñiz, R. (2005) Descubriendo al águila arpía en Ecuador. Quercus, 233: 56-62.
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Image credit

Female harpy eagle at nest in kapok tree  
Female harpy eagle at nest in kapok tree

© Pete Oxford / naturepl.com

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