Palace of the Eagle

| December 9, 2013

As visitors proceed down the path in the Orinoco Rainforest, over the exhibit for the Orinoco crocodiles, they eventually overlook the flock of Caribbean flamingoes in their lagoon in the adjoining Mundo Maya Rainforest, a sort of “shop window” preview of what they will see at close range later on. If one looks straight ahead, instead of down, one will be staring into the netted balcony of the Mayan Palace, and, very likely, see one of the most rarely exhibited birds in the US.

At present, The Dallas World Aquarium’s Black-and-white hawk-eagle (Spizastur melanoleucas) appears to be the only living specimen outside of Tropical America, and is the only one listed in captivity by the International Species Information System (ISIS).

In the wild, it is found across a very wide area of Central and South America, from the Mexican states of Veracruz and Oaxaca, south to Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina. Although it is not a particularly common bird through this vast range, it is not considered in any danger of extinction. It lives in a variety of habitats, from forests to savannas, and wooded areas along rivers, so is not thought to be as affected by forest destruction as some other tropical birds of prey.

As eagles go, it is fairly small, weighing less than 2.2 pounds (1,000 grams), less than a third of the weight of a Bald eagle. Its diet appears to consist largely of birds, though it will hunt small mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

For some reason, this has always been a very rare bird in zoos. Before The Dallas World Aquarium received its bird in March 2010, the only one I had ever seen had been at the Oklahoma City Zoo in 1978. The female Black-and-white hawk-eagle came here through special arrangements from Panama. Its keeper, Travis Koonz, tells me it is a very calm and steady bird and quite easy with which to work. It is hoped that a male will join it soon. This species has never been bred in captivity.

The Black-and-white hawk-eagle is one of five species of Tropical American Eagles maintained at The Dallas World Aquarium, a unique collection. Ornate hawk-eagles (Spizaetus ornatus), which have produced several chicks here, live in an aviary high in a corner of Mundo Maya. They can be best observed, from a long distance, from the windows of Café Maya. The Black hawk-eagles (Spizaetus tyrannus) are currently in an off-display breeding facility. This species has laid eggs here, and hopes are high for chicks soon.

The gigantic Harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja) can be seen if one stands beneath the glass ceiling of Café Maya and looks straight up. Our female is a young bird that hatched at the San Diego Zoo. Finally, there are the Guiana crested eagles (Morphnus guanensis), resembling the Harpy, but smaller, though certainly not a small bird! For years, our two females have lived in another remote corner aviary, high up in Mundo Maya, where both have laid eggs. The DWA staff are looking forward to the arrival of a male from Brazil, expected this year.

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