Episode 126 – Harpy Eagle: The Raging Raptor

“Today we’re talking about a bird that’s as fearless as it is big. More on that later.”

Life in the rainforest can be hard, but not if you’re a harpy eagle. Enjoying a top spot at the head of its food chain, these frilly feathers can choose from a wide variety of animals to make its meal. While most birds choose easy, light prey, the harpy eagle goes for the hefty haunches. But being able to carry your own weight is how you snag the prime prey here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.


  • Harpy eagles are large, grey and white raptors with black beaks and yellow feet.
  • Even though these birds are large, ther feet look big and powerful compared to their bodies.
  • Those feet have the largest talons of any living raptor, even compared to larger birds. 
  • Their talons can grow up to 5 inches, which is even larger than some full grown grizzly claws.
  • Harpy eagles have a characteristic tuft of feathers on their heads that can fluff out to look like a full mane.

Measure Up

Welcome to the beloved Measure Up segment. The official listener’s favorite part of the show! The part of the show when we present the animal’s size and dimension in relatable terms through a quiz that’s fun for the whole family. It’s also the part of the show that’s introduced by you when you send in audio of yourself saying, singing, or chittering the words measure up into ldtaxonomy at gmail dot com. We have a new measure up intro from TheHoneyBadgerer, who has also left us a review before!


  • 176 to 224 cm (5 ft 9 in to 7 ft 4 in)
  • 7 feet
  • How many harpy wingspans go into the length of the panama canal?
  • Hint: The Panama Canal is a man-made waterway that connects the Atlantic and Pecific Oceans by cutting through the narrow strip of land in Panama that connects south and central America. It was one of the most difficult engineering projects the U.S. took on at the time, and it had already been abandoned by the French because of high-worker mortality rates. 
  • 37,714 eagles. The canal is 50 miles (82 km) wide. 


  • 6 to 9 kg (13 to 20 lb)
  • 20 lbs
  • How many Harpy eagles go into the weight of the largest ever patacon, a food made of flattened and fried plantains. 
  • Hint: The Patacon was made by Panama’s indigenous people, the Embera, who made the giant dish to raise awareness about deforestation that threatens the environment and their own way of life. One man said the event was intended to “increase visibility of indigenous communities.”
  • 12.25 eagles. The Patacon was 245 pounds.

Fast Facts

  • The harpy eagle lives in the forests of Panama, Brazil, and South America as a whole.
  • They can live up to 35 years.
  • They use excellent hearing and eyesight to hunt their prey during the day.
  • Many birds of prey glide around searching for prey and then attack them from above.
    • Harpies will sit in trees for hours waiting for prey to come within attack range.
    • They’ll swoop down and reach flight speeds of 50 mph (80 kph) to catch prey.
  • Harpies are known for their fearlessness, and can’t be scared away as easily as other birds.
  • They stash kills in trees and eat the entire thing, bones and all.
  • They can go several days without eating, so they don’t need to hunt constantly.
  • That gives them time to build massive nests.
    • Harpies build large enough nests for a person to fit inside.
    • Nests can be 6 feet wide and about a foot deep, like a kiddie pool.
    • Harpies mate for life and raise one or two chicks every couple years.
    • Young eagles take six months to grow enough to fly. After two years, they strike out on their own.
  • Harpies maintain a 20 square mile territory.

Facts from Friends

Featuring Moxie from Your Brain on Facts

  • The harpy eagle is considered near threatened.
  • Even though they can be found widely in their native range, harpies populations are dwindling significantly.
  • One of the main contributors to the decreasing populations is habitat loss due to horticulture, logging, and prospecting.
  • It’s also threatened by hunters that kill it because they’re afraid it poses a threat to livestock and even people. 
    • Harpies aren’t known to prey on people, though they have the physical capabilities to harm humans if provoked.
    • They are also not known to hunt livestock except in rare circumstances.
    • Hunters may target them for their intimidating size and fearlessness. 
  • There are harpy eagle conservation efforts in multiple countries, including the Peregrine Fund and the Belize Harpy Eagle Restoration Project.

Manic Monkey Madness

  • The harpy eagle is an apex predator in its rainforest home.
  • It’s one of the largest birds and the second largest eagle in the world, so outside of being swatted out of the sky by a jaguar, it doesn’t have much to fear in terms of predation.
  • This status allows harpy eagles to have quite a few prey species on the menu.
  • When you think of an eagle’s prey, you might think of a fish or a small bird or mammal, but the harpy eagle lives its whole life at a Golden Corral buffet.
  • Here are just some of the animals it eats:
    • Brown-throated and two-toed sloths, squirrels, opossums, armadillos, kinkajous, macaws, iguanas, snakes, capuchin monkeys, saki monkeys, squirrel monkeys, and spider monkeys.
      • Small animals are usually preferable for birds because they have hollow bones and can’t fly away with heavier prey.
    • But that’s not an issue for harpy. Despite still having hollow bones, she’ll go after much larger prey including anteaters, porcupines, and howler monkeys.
    • They will also sometimes go for domestic animals like chickens as well as the young of sheep, goats, and pigs.
    • They can lift prey up to their own body weight, which is insane for something that can fly. That’s like a 747 flying with another 747 glued to it’s back, but way harder because birds don’t rely on lift to take off.
    • They’ve been seen grabbing fully-grown, 20lb howler monkeys out of trees and flying off without landing which is crazy.
  • One of the main tools in their arsenal, like any bird of prey, is the talons.
    • The harpy eagle has the strongest and largest talons of any eagle. And it’s legs are the thickness of a human wrist. Not sure if it’s Arnold Schwartzenegger’s wrist or Ellen Page’s, but that’s still a pretty thick leg for a bird.
    • The talons themselves are 5 inches long and razor-sharp (a grizzly’s claws are a pathetic 2-4 inches)
    • When the harpy eagle grabs prey, it can squeeze hard enough to break bone at more than 110 lb of pressure. This allows it to incapacitate prey that would otherwise be struggling as the harpy eagle flew.

Ending: So spread your wings, sharpen your talons, and if you pick up a full-grown monkey, be sure you know what you’re getting into like the harpy eagle here in LDT.

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