Harpy eagle - The largest raptor in the Amazon forest

31 January 2018

One of the most dramatic sights in the Amazon forests of Tambopata National Reserve is that of harpy eagles in pursuit of macaws and parrots at the major clay licks, or collpas, located within the Reserve.    


The harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja) is one of the biggest eagles in the world and the largest raptor found in the rainforests of Central and South America. Its name comes from Greek mythology: for the ancients, Harpies were spirits in the form of eagles with human heads, tasked with carrying the souls of the dead down to the underworld.   


Harpy eagle talons are often as large as the claws of the North American brown bear, and the bird is so powerful that sightings have been reported of individuals carrying off sloths weighing up to seven kilos. The female harpy eagle is larger than the male; while adult females may weigh anywhere between six and nine kilos, mature males tend to weigh between just four or five kilos. While the wingspan of this rainforest dwelling eagle may seem massive (anything from 176 to 224 centimeters), it is in fact smaller than that of comparable large eagle species in other parts of the world. This relatively modest wingspan is an adaptation, granting the bird greater mobility as it flies through the forest canopy in search of prey. Adult harpy eagles have no natural predators; the greatest threat to the species across its range is humankind, and in Central America habitat destruction has almost completely wiped out the harpy eagle.


While the harpy eagle is rare throughout its range, from Mexico as far south as Brazil and northern Argentina, protected natural areas such as Tambopata National Reserve provide a more secure habitat and offer the chance of occasional sightings.


The plumage of adult harpy eagles ranges from slate gray and black on their upper side to white on the underside, while the tail is black and decorated with three gray bands. Existing at the top of the tropical forest food chain, the harpy eagle is a carnivorous predator. It often preys on arboreal mammals and individuals have been observed apparently specializing in the hunting of sloths and monkeys. It will also hunt agoutis, parrots, macaws, snakes and fish.


Harpy eagle pairs will typically raise a single chick once every two or three years. For nest building, they will often select the tallest trees in the Amazon, such as Brazil nut and kapok trees, and in many indigenous South American cultures it is considered bad luck to fell a kapok tree.





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