Southern Mexico to northern Argentina


Rain forest

Bold and beautiful

The harpy eagle is legendary, although few people have seen one in the wild. Early South American explorers named these great birds after harpies, the predatory “frightful, flying creatures with hooked beak and claws” of Greek mythology. This dark gray bird of prey has a very distinctive look, with feathers atop its head that fan into a bold crest when the bird feels threatened. Some smaller gray feathers create a facial disk that may focus sound waves to improve the bird’s hearing, similar to owls.

Like most eagle species, the female “harpy” is almost twice as large as the male. The harpy eagle's legs can be as thick as a small child's wrist, and its curved, back talons are larger than grizzly bear claws at 5 inches (13 centimeters) long! The harpy may not be the largest bird of prey (that title belongs to the Andean condor), but this extraordinary creature is definitely the heaviest and most powerful of birds.

Living the high life

Harpy eagles range from Mexico to northern Argentina and live in forested areas. Despite their wingspan, which can reach up to 6.5 feet (2 meters) across, harpies fly through their forest home with great agility. For nesting, harpies favor silk-cotton trees (kapok trees) and usually build nests 90 to 140 feet (27 to 43 meters) above the ground. They like to use trees with widely spaced branches for a clear flight path to and from the nest. Harpies use large sticks to create the nest's huge frame and line it with softer greens, seedpods, and animal fur to make it warm and comfortable. A harpy nest measures about 4 feet (1.2 meters) thick and 5 feet (1.5 meters) across, large enough for a person to lie across! Once built, an eagle pair may reuse and remodel the same nest for many years.

The strong, silent type, harpy eagles do not vocalize much. When heard, they wail (wheee, wheee-ooooo), croak, whistle, click, and mew.

Early South American explorers named these great birds after Harpyja, the predatory half-woman, half-bird monster of Greek mythology.
Harpy eagles mate for life.
The harpy eagle is the national bird of Panama.

Harpy eagles were first exhibited at the San Diego Zoo in 1940. In 1987, a zoo-bred male arrived from Germany’s Tierpark Berlin and, with the intent of forming a breeding pair, was joined in 1991 by a female from a zoo in Colombia. The pair produced a chick in 1992, which unfortunately died in the nest at less than nine days of age. In November 1994, their second chick, a male, made avian history as the first harpy eaglet successfully hatched and raised in captivity in North America.

Today, you can enjoy wonderful views of one of our harpies on exhibit on the Zoo's Eagle Trail. The exhibit features a full-flight enclosure with large trees and lush vegetation. A permanent structure at the rear of the exhibit provides a nesting platform. Nesting material is placed in the exhibit, but the size, shape, and form of the nest is up to the birds. The rocky outcropping that serves as the nesting platform hides a chamber that allows keepers to gain access to the nest. We also have harpy eagles on breeding loans to other zoo institutions.

You would think that the massive harpy eagle is invincible. But think again. Each harpy eagle pair needs several square miles of undisturbed forest to thrive. Since these eagles are nonmigratory, they hunt their established range continuously. Years of logging, destruction of nesting sites, and poaching have eliminated this bird species from much of its former range, especially the northern part, and it is now rare in many areas. Their most current threat comes from hunters shooting the birds for sport. Harpy parents raise, at most, a single eaglet every two years, so once the number of harpy eagles in a particular area has been reduced, it is hard for the population to recover.

Until recently, the San Diego Zoo was the only zoo in the United States to breed this rare species. Now Zoo Miami has reared a chick from parents that originated from our Zoo! Fifteen harpy eagles have hatched here since 1992, and in 1998, two offspring were released into their native habitat in Panama. We continue to work with The Peregrine Fund, which launched the Harpy Eagle Release Project in 1989, to help harpy eagles in the wild and keep these magnificent eagles aloft.