Endangered Species Report #23
The Harpy Eagle

Written by: Holly L. Koppel

In the rainforests of South America lives a bird whose name comes from ancient Greek mythology. This is the harpy eagle, a bird rarely seen in the wild, but it still faces the threat of extinction due to hunting and habitat loss. Currently, the Peregrine Fund and World Center for Birds of Prey are working to increase the population in the wild as well as trying to protect what habitat is left for the harpy.

In Greek mythology, there is a legend of creatures that were half woman and half bird which were called harpies. According to the Dictionary of Mythology, the harpies were three in number, winged creatures who were daughters of Thaumas and Electra. According to the myth, the harpies were best known for snatching away the daughters of Pandareous in Homer's The Odyssey. When early European settlers came to South America and encountered these birds of prey, they called them harpy eagles because they were known to fly down from the skies and snatch animals out of the trees.

Despite their namesake, the harpy does very little hunting by flying in the sky and looking for their next meal like many other hawks and eagles do. Usually, the harpy remains in the treetops, keeping its eye out for prey and when it spots an animal, it will swoop down into the canopy and lift its prey out of the trees. Primarily what the harpy is looking for for food are monkeys, sloths, opossums, and porcupines.

One of the biggest problems facing conservationists who want to help this bird survive is the bird's slow reproductive cycle. Harpy eagles are not sexually mature until they are about 4-5 years old and at that time they will pair up with a mate for life. The female harpy will lay about one to two eggs; however, usually only one chick survives to adulthood. The mother will keep the chick with her for about two years at which time the young harpy will strike out on its own, and the mother will start the cycle all over again. Unfortunately, habitat loss is occurring much faster than these birds can reproduce.

There is hope for the harpy eagle though; the U.S. based World Center for Birds of Prey has set up a breeding center in Panama to breed them in captivity and later release them in greater numbers into the wild. In January, the center saw the birth of a pair of harpy eagle chicks, the first born in captivity. A second pair was just recently born this April. The fund hopes to be able to breed up to 10 eagles a year over the next 15 years and then start releasing them throughout Central America.

This is the second attempt made to breed these raptors in captivity. An earlier effort was made from 1996-2000 in Idaho where scientists attempted to breed raptors in laboratories that simulated the tropical climate they were from. Unfortunately, few eggs were actually hatched from this method and the ones that were born were too weak to survive in the wild.

In addition to captive breeding efforts, conservation organizations are also trying to train the local people in Central and South America on how to care for these endangered species and live in harmony with them. Also, eco-tourism is being used as a method to help save the threatened habitat of the harpy eagle. With people coming in to look for these raptors and to see a genuine rainforest, it is more profitable for the South American countries to promote eco-tourism than to cut down the forests.

Despite gains made in captive breeding and protection of the rainforest due to eco-tourism, the harpy's future is still not secure. More education is needed to ensure that local peoples in South and Central America recognize this bird as an endangered species and do not kill this bird for sport. We also need to make sure that people all over the world are aware of the harpy's plight because the more people are educated about the harpy, the better chance it has for survival.