Factsheet: Harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja)



Posted on 14 June 2006  | 
Young harpy eagle in the nest near Floresta Amazonica Hotel, Brazil
© Zig KochEnlarge
The harpy eagle, or simply harpy (Harpia harpyja), is considered by many Brazilian indigenous tribes as the personification of tribal chiefs, a symbol of eagerness and prowess. Its eye-sight is eight times more powerful than that of human beings, and this bird is one of the most feared hunters in Brazilian forests. It is so powerful that it can snatch a sloth from top of a tree while flying, and it can carry an animal weighing 10 kilos.

For many indigenous ethnic groups, the harpy is Uiraçu himself, the father of all birds. In many cases, the garments made from the feathers of this bird are used only when men die, or at specific celebrations. In the past, some indigenous peoples, such as the Mehinako, used to build large cages to keep live harpies in the centre of the tribe. The bird was usually killed or buried alive when its owner died.

Although it is on top of the food chain and therefore has no predators – except for men –, and counts amongst the largest birds of prey in the world,  the harpy eagle is an endangered species due to shrinking forests – it requires an area of about 100 km2 for its habitat.

With solitary and daytime habits, a harpy can be as long as 1.15 meters and its wing-spread can reach 2.5 meters. Female harpies are larger than males, and in some cases they can weigh as much as 10 kilos. Because of the crown-shaped feathers on its head, the harpy eagle is called “gavião-real” (royal harpy) in Brazil.

The world's largest eagle exerts fascination not only over indigenous populations. Ornithologists and scientists alike around the world find it a luck opportunity to be able to watch this bird in its habitat. For many researchers, harpies also provide signs since their presence reflects the health conditions of the ecosystem where they live. When they are gone, there is an indication that there are not enough preys or forest area for them to survive. This is why protected areas are important to ensure survival of this species, whose reproduction in captivity has not yielded very satisfactory results up to date.

Harpy eagles can be found across the entire Latin American continent, especially in tropical areas. In Brazil, its primary habitat is the Amazon. Before the expansion of deforestation, it was possible to see these birds in the states of Paraná and Rio Grande do Sul, and in the Atlantic Forest. Today, although they have not completely disappeared from those areas, it is harder and harder to see them around.

An enemy of psittacidae species (macaws, cockatoos and parrots), harpies feed from fish, snakes, lizards, and especially mammals, such as monkeys, agoutis, and sloths.
Young harpy eagle in the nest near Floresta Amazonica Hotel, Brazil
© Zig Koch Enlarge
Harpia harpyja Harpy eagle im. Mato Grosso Brazil
© WWF-Canon / Michel GUNTHER Enlarge

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