Harpyja, Greek mythological creatures, were voracious, winged monsters with the head and trunk of a woman and the wings, tail and talons of a bird. They were believed to be wind spirits that carried the dead to their future destination.
Harpy eagles (Harpia harpyja), formidable birds of prey, are apex predators in their natural habitat. When threatened, feathers atop the head, fan out to form a bold crest and shorter feathers create a facial disk that gives distinction to the face. The Harpy is one of the largest species of eagles, with females often being twice the weight of her mate. They are 36-40 inches in length, weigh 12-20 pounds and have a wingspan up to seven feet. This bird is quite agile and stealthily maneuvers throughout the rainforest searching for prey.
Harpies will spend hours perched high in the canopy using their excellent vision for hunting, rather than wasting energy flying about looking for food. They feed primarily on unsuspecting tree-dwelling mammals such as sloths, monkeys and opossums, but will also prey on reptiles and other birds. In addition to their agility and vision, five-inch long talons (as large as those of grizzly bears) allow the prey to be easily snatched. During a diligent chase, these eagles can reach speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. Based on their size, it is understandable that females hunt the larger food items and leave the smaller prey for the more agile males.
Upon reaching sexual maturity at 4-6 years of age, Harpy eagles mate for life. Huge stick nests are built high in the emergent trees in the rainforest in which one or two eggs are laid. The first egg hatches after an incubation period of 53-56 days; the second egg is then ignored and seldom hatches. Chicks usually fledge in 6-7 months but will remain in the area close to the nest for one year. It is believed that on the average, a pair of Harpy eagles produces a chick every 2-4 years. Even though they have a rather extensive range (found primarily in several South American countries, and with a small population in Central America and Mexico), the Harpy eagle is decreasing in population. In addition to the slow reproduction rate, it is threatened by habitat destruction and is often still hunted. The Harpy eagle is placed in Appendix I (species that are the most endangered) of CITES, the Convention on International Trade Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, and its future may very well depend on captive breeding and release projects.
Sharing the El Triunfo habitat, a majestic pair of Harpy eagles makes an impressive addition to the Mundo Maya exhibit. Transferred to the DWA via an agreement with the Government of Mexico, we are hopeful that our breeding success in the avian department will continue – with offspring being returned to their native country.