The harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja), also known as the American harpy eagle or Brazilian harpy eagle, is a neotropical species of eagle, distributed throughout Central to South America. It is one of the largest extant species of eagle in the world, and the largest and most powerful in its range, weighing between 4 to 9 kg (8.8 to 20 lb).
The harpy eagle belongs to the Accipitridae and subfamily Harpiinae, and the genus Harpia. It is the only member of its genus and is most closely related to the crested eagle (Morphnus guianensis) and the New Guinea harpy eagle (Harpyopsis novaeguineae). Along with the genus Harpia, the genus’ Harpyopsis and Morphnus form the subfamily Harpiinae. The name harpyja and the word “harpy” in the common name harpy eagle both come from Ancient Greek harpyia (ἅρπυια).
These birds are usually found in the tropical lowland rainforests in mid to upper levels of rainforest canopies, where they are able to find their prey — sloths and primates. They also eat lizards, birds and small rodents.
The harpy eagle is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, with the population declining. The main reason for the decline in these birds is deforestation, which has meant it is nearly extirpated from much of Central America. They are also threatened by international trade, and by farmers who may shoot these birds as they perceive the eagles as livestock predators.
Harpy Eagle Characteristics
The harpy eagle is ones of the largest species of eagle in the world, and the largest across its range. These birds are sexually dimorphic, with females being larger and heavier than males. Female harpy eagles typically weigh 6 to 9 kg (13 to 20 lb), while males may weigh 4 to 6 kg (8.8 to 13.2 lb), giving a 35% or higher difference in mean body mass.
These birds may measure from 86.5 to 107 cm (2 ft 10 in to 3 ft 6 in) in total length, with a wingspan of 176 to 224 cm (5 ft 9 in to 7 ft 4 in). Their talons are also very long, 8.6 cm in males, and 12.3 cm in females, making them larger than a grizzly bear’s claws!
Harpy eagles are easily recognized by their distinct colors, including their gray head, white underside, and slate-black back, wings, and breast. A broad black band across the upper breast separates the gray head from the white belly. Their legs are largely white in color with black stripes, while their beak, eyes, and talons are black or reddish in color. Their feet are yellow.
The top of the eagle’s head contains a rich crown of long black features that it can manually raise when threatened. They also have excellent eyesight, which allows them to see their prey from long distances, and a very good sense or hearing. Both their eyesight and hearing makes up for their poor sense of smell.
The tail feathers have evolved primarily to help them steer and navigate around trees and vegetation. In comparison to other large eagles, such as the Philippine eagle and the Steller’s sea eagle, the wingspan of the harpy eagle is relatively small, though the wings are quite broad.
These other two eagles are slightly larger than the harpy eagle, and, although the harpy eagle may be the largest bird species to reside in Central America, large water birds such as American white pelicans and jabirus have lower mean body masses.
Harpy Eagle Lifespan
A healthy harpy eagle has an average lifespan of between 25 to 35 years. However, if a harpy eagle becomes sick or injured, their chances of survival are dramatically reduced due to the inability to hunt and capture prey.
Harpy Eagle Diet
Harpy eagles are carnivores at the top of the food chain, with their main prey being tree-dwelling mammals found in the top canopy where they reside, such as sloths and monkeys. The most common species of monkeys taken by harpy eagles are capuchin monkeys, saki monkeys, howler monkeys, titi monkeys, squirrel monkeys, and spider monkeys.
Other prey taken by harpy eagles include land mammals like porcupines, squirrels, opossums, anteaters and armadillos, and reptiles such as iguanas, tegus, and snakes. They may also prey on bird species such as macaws and parrots.
Harpy eagles have been known to take domestic livestock, including chickens, lambs, goats, and young pigs. For this reason, these birds are often killed by farmers when seen on their land, which has led to a decline in their population. Despite the view that harpy eagles pose a large threat to livestock, the chances of these animals being taken by the eagle is actually fairly small.
The harpy eagle is extremely strong, and its talons allow it to take prey equal to its own body weight. Males usually take relatively smaller prey, with a typical range of 0.5 to 2.5 kg (1.1 to 5.5 lb) or about half their own weight, while females take larger prey, around 2.7 kg (6.0 lb).
Harpy Eagle Hunting Habits
Harpy eagles usually use perch hunting, in which they scan for prey activity while briefly perched between short flights from tree to tree. Once they have spotted their prey, they can attack it from either above or below, preferring to strike quickly before the victim is aware of their presence.
They may also “sit-and-wait”, meaning they perch for long periods on a high point near an opening, a river, or a salt lick. They have also been observed tail-chasing; pursuing another bird in flight, rapidly dodging trees and branches.
They grab their prey by using their long talons and powerful legs. They are also powerful enough to carry their prey away to a perch to feed. If the prey is too heavy to carry, then the eagle will partially eat it before returning to the nest.
The harpy eagle is a generally solitary animal that prefers to hunt alone or with a breeding partner. They use their excellent eyesight that allows them to see prey less than an inch large from about 650 feet away, and their ability to carefully maneuver through dense forests with their wings to catch their prey. They also use their good sense of hearing, which makes up for their relatively poor sense of smell.
These birds of prey are diurnal and hunt during the day. Harpy eagles can travel at speeds of up to 50 mph for short periods of time, although they cannot sustain this speed for very long. They use their long tail feathers to help them navigate.
Harpy eagles are largely silent when away from the nest. At the nest, adults can call out a weak, melancholy scream. Males call out as they approach the nest with food, although vocalizations in both parents decreases as the nestlings age, while the nestlings become more vocal. The nestlings call “chi-chi-chi” which is usually in response to rain or direct sunlight.
Harpy Eagle Reproduction
Harpy eagles are a monogamous species that appear to form lifelong bonds with their chosen mates. They share the duties of raising young, including building a nest. Pairs of harpy eagles will often rub their bills together, which is believed to be part of mate bonding.
Harpy eagles build nests 90 to 140 feet above the ground primarily in kapok or silk-cotton trees where the young chicks are safe from almost all potential predators except for other birds. The nests consist of sticks, vegetation, and animal fur and are about five feet in diameter. They usually use the same nesting site each year.
A pair of these eagles usually only raises one chick every 2 to 3 years. The mating season begins with the rainy season around April or May, during which time the pair will mate several times over the course of a few days. After mating, the female will typically lay two eggs at a time, but raise only a single chick. If two chicks hatch, then the parents will usually leave the second one to starve. If the first chick dies, however, then there is a good chance the second egg will survive.
The egg is incubated for around 56 days, during which time the female takes on most of the incubation duties and the male searches for food. After the chick has hatched, both parents take care of it, protecting it and bringing it food. Prey that is brought to the nest is normally medium-sized, between 1 to 4 kg (2.2 to 8.8 lb). Males tend to bring smaller prey than females.
Harpy eagle chicks can stand and walk at around 35 days. They will remain all-white for the first six to seven months of age, after which it will gain its adult feathers. The chick also fledges at the age of 6 months, but the parents continue to feed it for another 6 to 10 months.
Harpy eagles reach sexual maturity at around 4 to 6 years of age.
Location and Habitat
The harpy eagle is found throughout Central and South America, from southern Mexico to the eastern part of Bolivia, southern Brazil, and northern Argentina. Harpy eagles are almost extinct in Central America due to habitat loss, and are most common in Brazil.
They mostly reside in the mid to upper levels of canopies of tropical lowland rainforests, where they are able to catch their prey such as primates and sloths. Harpy eagles generally prefer undisturbed forests but will also hunt along open patches of land.
Harpy Eagle Conservation Status
The harpy eagle is considered to be Vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The exact population of these birds is unknown, but there is thought to be less than 50,000 individuals remaining in the wild. They are already almost extinct in much of Mexico and Central America.
The population of the eagle declined as a result of forest fragmentation, shooting, and nest destruction, resulting in near extirpation of the species. The destruction of the Amazon rainforest plays the biggest part in the decline in this eagle, and experts worry that at some point the loss of the Amazon may become irreversible. On top of that, these birds only reproduce every 2 to 3 years, and thus the population may never fully recover.
There have also been reports of harpy eagles being shot by farmers who perceive the eagles as livestock predators.
Despite this, there are efforts underway to help protect the harpy eagle. Conservation organizations such as the Peregrine Fund are trying to prevent the further loss of population numbers and reintroduce the species into its former habitat. The Peregrine Fund is also using a captive-breeding and release project to help restore numbers in the wild.
A research project is occurring in Brazil, at the National Institute of Amazonian Research, through which 62 known nesting locations are being monitored by researchers and volunteers from local communities.
In Belize, the Belize Harpy Eagle Restoration Project began in 2003 and captive-bred harpy eagles were released in the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area in Belize, chosen for its quality forest habitat and linkages with Guatemala and Mexico.
Local governments are also working to preserve the remaining rainforest habitat for these animals. What’s more, programs are being set up to educate farmers and hunters to increase awareness and understanding of these eagles.
Harpy eagles are apex predators, meaning adults do not really have any predators of their own. Hatchling harpy eagles may be at risk from predation by other harpy eagles, but this type of predation is a rare occasion as the parents defend the nest and their territory.
Harpy eagles are apex predators of their rainforest ecosystems, helping to keep populations of other animals in their ecosystem regulated.
They are the national bird of Panama and Parana, Brazil, and are occasionally used in ceremonial rituals by indigenous hunters.
The bird appeared on the reverse side of the Venezuelan 2,000 bolívares fuertes note. They were also the inspiration behind the design of Fawkes the Phoenix in the Harry Potter film series.
Harpy Eagle FAQs
How big is a harpy eagle?
The harpy eagle is the largest and most powerful raptor found throughout its range, and one of the largest eagles in the world. Females are generally larger than males, and can weigh between 6 to 9 kg (13 to 20 lb), while males may weigh 4 to 6 kg (8.8 to 13.2 lb).
Their total length may measure from 86.5 to 107 cm (2 ft 10 in to 3 ft 6 in)!
These birds are so big and strong that they can carry prey the same weight as their body, while flying!
How big is the Harpy Eagle Wingspan?
The Harpy Eagle is one of the largest flying birds in the world with a wingspan of 176 to 224 cm (5 ft 9 in to 7 ft 4 in).
Where do harpy eagles live?
They live in Central and South America. They can be found in tropical lowland rainforests in the mid to upper levels of rain forest canopies. This is because their prey is found in these areas.
How fast do harpy eagles fly?
Harpy eagles can fly fast — at speeds of up to 50 mph. However, they can only maintain this speed for short periods of time.
What do harpy eagles eat?
The main foods this eagle likes to eat are monkeys and sloths. However, they will also eat reptiles, land mammals, and other birds. They have also been known to eat livestock, although this is quite rare.