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Harpy Eagle: Nightmare on Wings

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

We were looking for Harpia harpyja, perhaps the largest eagle in the world, rivaled only by the Philippine (monkey-eating) eagle, a species that someone I love very much is trying, hiking, stumbling to see as you read this. Kind of romantic...we have both searched for the world's largest eagles on opposite sides of the world. It's romantic until you realize that we have to be apart an awful lot to do that.

These mega-eagles take large prey--monkeys, small deer, opossums, coatis--and can flip upside down in flight and rip a sloth right off its perch. If you've ever tried to remove a sloth from something it's hanging on to, you know how strong they are. Harpy eagles are stupefyingly powerful. In Greek mythology, the harpies were those horrid winged women with their breasts hanging out who swooped down to take you to the underworld. Shudder. I like it when mythology and taxonomy collide; it makes for colorful names.

To give you an idea just how big this bird is, here is Neil Rettig, filmmaker, falconer and arguably the world's authority on the species, holding a captive bird. Rettig was the first person to make a study of them at the nest, building and living in scaffolding, and producing unforgettable photographs and film of their family life for National Geographic. What an honor it was to meet him and his glorious eagle, in Davenport, no less!

I shot these photos at the Midwest Birding Symposium in Davenport, Iowa in October 2005. Get a load of those talons; compare them with Neil's fingers. Note that he has to support his arm with its heavy leather gauntlet to keep this enormous bird comfortable (and keep his arm from falling off). This bird can weigh 14-20 pounds (Chet Baker weighs 24 pounds).

The harpy's rounded wings (see, no primaries extend from beneath the broad secondaries) help it maneuver in tight spaces, much as do those of the accipiters, only on a huge scale. The long, heavy tail is a good rudder for fast turns. A harpy's feet are almost cartoonish; I remember thinking that the first time I saw one perched along Brazil's TransAmazon Highway in 1979. They looked as though they'd been inflated. The better to squeeze a wooly monkey, my dear. I cannot imagine trusting one with my right arm, even through a leather gauntlet. (Says the woman who handed a giant Amazon otter a chance to crush her wrist...)

I have been reading some excellent books on falconry lately, by Rachel Dickinson (Falconer on the Edge) and Tim Gallagher (Falcon Fever). I wish I had read them before I met Neil. I would have asked him where he takes this bird to fly it; what kind of prey they look for. Woodchucks? Rabbits? Egad.

People get rather complacent around birds of prey when they are sitting calmly on a handler's arm. When the harpy suddenly sleeked and focused, I automatically followed its gaze to see what had interested it, and was horrified, at the receiving end of that laser glare, to see a wriggling infant being wheeled into the auditorium in a stroller. Nothing escapes an eagle's attention; it may be above acknowledging most things, but you can be sure it noticed. I don't think anyone in the room but Neil and yer blogger caught what was going down in the eagle's brain...I could read its thoughts. Good thing the baby's parents couldn't.

Right prey size class, check, defenseless, check, very manageable, check, big sturdy rafters I could bear it away to, check...keep your hand on those jesses, Neil. And, knowing his harpy and certainly needing no input from me, he had already tightened his grip.

I would not bring a poodle into this auditorium. And I would want to know when Neil was flying his harpy eagle, and leave Chet Baker home.

Next: Looking for the Wild Harpy


Wow! I'm in such awe.

Great blog --inspiring and informative. I found it while looking for photos of copperhead hatchlings. My wife recently captured a couple of what turned out to be Texas Blind Snakes inside the house. I wanted to show her photos of how some of the local venomous species look as hatchings so she'd be able to tell the difference.

I especially appreciate reading some of your experiences with birds --information that I'm sure will come in handy as my interest in photography drives me to greater contact with insects and other wildlife.

That is one impressive looking raptor!!!

Let's hope Bill will have luck finding the rare Philippine Eagle too. You're family is so cool!

Can't wait to read the next part.

That is such an amazing looking bird. Those talons are scarily impressive. I wouldn't want to let my kitty cat out, if I knew something like that was in the vicinity and hunting.

We watched the MGM lions in Las Vegas go from lazy sleeping heaps to the same prey alert stance in an instant. We followed the line of sight and there was a tasty toddler with it's nose right against the glass. Those parents didn't notice either, but it sure gave one pause to see the same laser lock feature on those lionesses who had never been in the wild and were hand fed all their lives. Yikes!

That. . .is. . .one. . .BIG. . .bird!

Wow -- massive! Like a real live gryphon, lion's paws and all. I adore the faces of these birds, with those sharp orbital ridges and big dark eyes.

okay, big bird... now c'mon I wanna see the real Harpy wild and untamed, in its nest, and Science Chimp shakin' in her boots (with rapture), and probably 'bout to fall off a cliff, trying to get the best angle for a picture.

Oh my gosh--that posture, those FEET!
What a magnificent, awe-inspiring, spectacular, glorious,....


I check out your blog every day, and every day I have a comment, but since it's usually just *WOW* I don't post it. But this was an extra big WOW!

Fabulous post. I can't take my eyes off the talons.

It's insane, isn't it? A raptor that big? I wanna hold one. Just for a minute.
Of course, my arm aches just holding one of our RTHA. Who weigh all of 4 pounds.

I'm love with harpy feet. They belong on a pterodactyl.

WOW, that is a bird indeed. I had not really noticed the talons next to Neil's fingers... whoa. And his response to a baby in a carrier, too shivery for words...

Thanks for the book shout-out, Julie.

I love how you noticed it noticing the baby.

Wow. That was one scary bedtime story, Zick!

"For nursery days are gone, nightmare is
real and there are no good Fairies.
The fox's teeth are in the bunny
and nothing can remove them, honey."

Gavin Ewart, b. 1916 London.

I met Neil when he did a presentation at the 1979 NAFA meet (Lebanon Indiana) on his filming of the Harpies. He showed us fantastic footage and outtakes. I remember the footage of the giant goshawk (eagle) diving at him as they were rapelling up the to the nest. And the shredded leather motorcycle jacket they showed from the talons of the protective eagle. They also were a helmet when climbing too.

Julie, I came to this post from Susan's blog. O my word, what a bird! That thing is HUGE!!!!!!!!! I shudder to think of the infant. This bird is certainly no pet!

Amazingly cherished by this truly

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