Wondrous Wildlife
By Vern and Lori Gieger
Rulers of the Rain Forest

     While visiting a bio reserve/research center in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas. We had the privilege to observe the harpy eagle. They are extraordinary bird...an awesome sight to behold. The harpy eagle is the largest eagle and most powerful bird of prey in the world. Early South American explorers named harpy eagles after the predatory half-woman, half-bird monster of Greek mythology, whose duty was to seize dead souls.
     Harpy eagles are found in the tropical lowland forests of Central and South America, from southeastern Mexico to northern Argentina and southern Brazil; pristine rain forests are among the few places where the bird has survived.
     The major threat facing harpies is loss of habitat and poaching. Harpy habitat is shrinking at an alarming rate! Rainforests are being ravaged by development, logging and agriculture. Their future is precarious at best. Each pair of harpy eagles require about seven or eight square miles of healthy forest to thrive.
     Harpies stand between three and four feet tall and weigh up to 20 lbs., with an average wing span of 7 feet, and they can fly 50 miles an hour. Their razor-sharp, curved talons are up to five inches long, the size of a grizzly bears. Those lethal talons can exert several hundred pounds of pressure, crushing the bones of their prey they seize from the rainforest canopy. Harpies are so strong they can swoop down and carry off monkeys, sloths and even small antelopes and peccaries.
     Despite its great strength and reputation as “the ruler of the rainforest,” the harpy eagle has become one of the most critically-endangered birds in Latin America. The harpy eagle has no natural predators except man, the most dangerous predator on earth.
Harpies have disappeared almost entirely from Central America except for rare reports of sightings. There are10 known eagles living in Mexico; approximately 20 more in South America. No one knows exactly how many still exist. Biologists have located less than 50 nests in Panama, Guyana and Venezuela.
     Harpy eagles mate for life; and build a large nest made of sticks and twigs. The pair keep adding twigs and leaves to it every year until it’s huge. Nests are usually located very high in the rain forest canopies or on cliffs, often more than 130 ft. above the forest floor. The parents share the responsibility of raising their young. Only one chick hatches and survives, although two eggs are laid. Harpies have the longest rearing period of any raptor. Fledglings test their wings at the age of six months, but parents continue to feed them for another year or more.
     This means a pair produces just one chick every two to three years. Because the young birds aren’t sexually mature until four to five years of age it’s hard for dwindling populations to rebound. What the future holds for these impressive birds is uncertain. The world could lose this exceptional bird, not to mention a vital component of a healthy ecosystem. Remember, extinction is forever.
     On a more positive note; Conservation efforts for the harpy eagle received a big boost last March when Panama’s Legislative Assembly passed a decree naming it the country’s national bird, lending much-needed legal clout to conservation efforts.