for National Geographic Today
The most powerful bird of prey on Earth, the harpy eagle, weighs up to
20 pounds (nine kilograms), has a seven-foot (2.1-meter) wing span, and
is armed with talons as big as grizzly bear claws. Those deadly talons
can exert several hundred pounds (over 50 kilograms) of pressure,
crushing the bones of the sloths, monkeys, and other prey the eagle
snatches from the rain forest canopy, often killing its victims
It's no wonder that early South American explorers named harpy eagles after the predatory half-woman, half-bird monster of Greek mythology.
The fearsome predator once ranged from southeast Mexico to Argentina. Now, Panama's pristine rain forests are among the few places where the bird has survived.
"It has disappeared almost entirely from Central America except for rare reports of sightings," said Angel Muela, Director of the Neotropical Raptor Center for the Peregrine Fund in Panama City.
Despite its great strength and reputation as "the ruler of the rain forest," the harpy eagle has become one of the most critically endangered birds in Latin America. Its numbers have declined with vanishing forests.
But 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.
No one knows exactly how many still exist. Biologists have located less than 50 nests in Panama, Guyana, and Venezuela.
Everywhere, the biggest threat facing the bird is deforestation. Harpy habitat is shrinking at an alarming rate, with forests ravaged by development, logging, and agriculture.
Each pair of harpy eagles requires about seven or eight square miles (20 square kilometers) of healthy forest to thrive. The pairs remain together for years while raising young.
Fledglings test their wings at the age of six months, but parents continue to feed them for another year. This means that a pair produces just one chick every two to three years, said Leonardo Salas, director of the Neotropical Raptor Conservation Program.
Because the young birds aren't sexually mature until the age of four and five, it's hard for dwindling populations to rebound.
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