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Harpia harpyja (Linnaeus, 1758)

Harpy eagle (EN) | Harpij (NL) | Gonini (SR)
Conservation status: Vulnerable
Adult size: 4 - 9 kg, 176 - 224 cm wingspan
Diet: Carnivore
Activity: Diurnal
Lifestyle: Volant

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About

The Harpy Eagle (Harpia harpyja) is among the world's largest eagles, and considered tthe most powerful, with enormous talons and its characteristic double head crest. This species primarily inhabits lowland tropical rainforests, favoring the emergent canopy layer for nesting and hunting. Found in the rainforests of Central and South America, this formidable raptor holds a significant place in both ecological and cultural contexts.
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Animalia
Chordata
Aves
Accipitriformes
Accipitridae
Harpiinae
Harpia
H. harpyja

Size and Appearance:

The Harpy Eagle (Harpia harpyja) is a massive bird of prey, considered the largest and most powerful raptor throughout its range. Its appearance includes slate-black feathers on the upperside and mostly white on the underside, with a distinctive dark breast band. It has huge talons, rivalling those of a grizzly bear. Juveniles have a whiter head than adults and lack a breast band, with a longer crest featuring two points. Adult females typically weigh 6 to 9 kg, while males are smaller, ranging from 4 to 6 kg. With a wingspan of 176 to 224 cm and impressive talons, it is known for its double crest on the pale gray head.

Habitat and Distribution:

The species inhabits lowland tropical forests, mainly below 900 m but occasionally up to 2,000 m. The harpy eagle's selective habitat preference includes undisturbed, mature forests with dense foliage, often near water sources. It exhibits some tolerance for degraded forest but prefers forest cover of at least 70%. Its range spans southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, and northeastern Argentina. However, it faces regional extinctions in Central America and parts of South America. The species is generally rare and patchily distributed throughout its range.
The Harpy eagle is considered the most powerful eagle in the world, with talons rivalling those of a grizzly bear. 

Diet:

Harpy Eagles are carnivores with a diverse diet, feeding on mammals, birds, and reptiles. Sloths and monkeys comprise a significant portion of their diet, but they also consume lizards, birds, small rodents, armadillos, and occasionally small deer. They are known for their impressive hunting skills, using perch hunting, dive attacks, and even tail-chasing to catch their prey. They are adept at snatching prey from the canopy, using their powerful talons and legs to subdue them and carrying it to a perch for feeding.

Reproduction and Reproductive Behavior:

Harpy Eagles form monogamous breeding pairs for life. Breeding season aligns with the rainy season, and pairs construct large nests in tall trees, reusing them again. The nests measure 1.2 m thick and 1.5 m across. They only breed every 2 - 3 years. The female lays two eggs, but only one chick is usually raised. Incubation lasts around 56 days, and juveniles fledge at 6-7 months, remaining dependent on their parents for an additional 6 to 10 months. Breeding maturity is reached at 4 to 6 years.

Ecosystem role:

As apex predators, Harpy Eagles play a crucial role in maintaining ecological balance. Their presence helps control populations of mesopredators like capuchin monkeys, which prey on the eggs of birds, preventing potential threats to sensitive species and influencing the dynamics of the forest ecosystem.

Threats and conservation

The Harpy Eagle is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and is suspected to be declining rapidly. It faces severe threats from habitat loss due to deforestation, logging, agriculture, illegal mining and other human activities. The species is often targeted by hunters and poachers, and its large size makes it susceptible to persecution, including for cultural purposes. This contributes to the decline in population size. Conservation action is crucial to protecting the remaining populations and their habitats with conservation efforts focusing on habitat protection, captive breeding, and raising awareness to mitigate these threats.

Cultural Significance:

In indigenous cultures, the harpy eagle holds symbolic significance, often revered as a spiritual entity or representing strength and wisdom. Unfortunately, this cultural reverence has sometimes resulted in negative consequences, such as capturing these birds for trade. Harpy Eagles hold cultural significance, being the national bird of Panama and depicted on the coat of arms. In Belize, a released individual named "Hope" was designated "Ambassador for Climate Change." The species is also featured on currency, such as the Venezuelan Bs.F 2,000 note. In popular culture, the Harpy Eagle inspired the design of Fawkes the Phoenix in the Harry Potter film series.

Recent studies:

An extensive study in Suriname in 2018 on the diet was able to add nine new prey species to the list of documented prey items for a total of 102 prey species known for the Harpy eagle. In 2022, the observation of a preying event in Ecuador from a sub-adult Harpy eagle added the greater grison (Galictis vittata) to this list. A study in 2020 found that selective logging uses the same trees used for nesting sites by Harpy eagles and therefore could be detrimental. A study in 2022 using climate models also predicts a substantial reduction in distribution for the species.
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