Last weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing harpy eagles in person for the first time at the Fort Worth Zoo. The walkway is enclosed beneath their habitat, and the male perched on the wire ceiling of the walkway with his meal while the female periodically flew from one side to the other. We could feel the wind off her wings; she was twice his size. On her last pass over our heads, a tiny piece of white down fluttered down through the wire mesh right in front of me, and I captured it carefully in both hands before it hit the ground.
I don’t usually connect strongly or easily with birds, but there was something special about the harpies (and Andean condors, but that’s for another post). My first step, when an animal catches my attention in that particular way, is to do some basic research and see what I can glean from that on a more symbolic/totemic/mythical level. If my interest or gut instinct continues to ring bells, I’ll do more in-depth research and study to continue interpreting science into symbol. (Yes, I am a zoologist-totemist. Best of both worlds!)
Harpies are very large eagles (but not the largest, as they are often described as being); they live in tropical lowland rainforests, and their wingspans are somewhat short for their overall size so they can maneuver in the dense forests. [Being sizable without forsaking agility; navigating a cluttered environment.] Like other eagles, the females are nearly twice the size of the males, but both sexes will take very large prey, up to their own weight, which is a startling feat of strength when we’re talking flying off with a live animal. [Choosing worthy and challenging targets instead of the easiest possible targets; operating at a level respective to one’s own strength and proficiency.]
Apex predators, harpy eagles primarily feed on arboreal mammals like sloths and monkeys, but will also eat other birds, reptiles, larger ungulates (even deer), or (very rarely) livestock. [Being versatile enough to find nourishment in many forms; being capable of seizing a variety of targets successfully.] Harpies have the largest talons of any living eagle, with claws longer than even a grizzly’s at 5.1 inches; their feet are immensely strong and capable of easily suppressing prey. [Extraordinary innate power, which can be used to anchor oneself or to seize and hold a target; ability to overpower and strangle.] Harpies tend to perch-hunt, scanning for prey while perched on boughs between short flights from tree to tree, but also still-hunt, which involves staying in one location and swooping down on prey when it’s spotted. They can also chase flying birds. [Versatility again in methodry; ability to keep moving or to wait motionlessly or to full-fledged chase, depending on the need.]
Harpies tend to be quiet when not attending their nests; they mate for life and raise one eaglet, ignoring their second egg unless the first fails to hatch. [Vocal when at “home” with family; focused on one partner and one offspring alone.] The nest is large, made of sticks, and frequently built in one of the tallest trees of South America, the kapok tree; it can be used for several clutches, which are spaced 2-3 years apart. [Finding safety and home-ness in high places; having a more stationary sense of home.] Both sexes will incubate the egg and bring back food for the other; the eaglet is fed and tended for the first year or more of its life. [Shared responsibilities, despite inequality in size; devotion to offspring past the point of strict necessity.]
Harpies tend to be aggressive and fearless of humans, leading them to be targeted by hunters, even though they pose no actual threat to human life as predators. [Persecution based on appearance instead of action; fearlessness in defending offspring and home.] Threatened primarily by habitat loss, they are anywhere from Critically Endangered to Near Threatened, depending on the area, but overall are classed as Near Threatened globally.
Overall, I’m getting an impression of lessons in strength (without forsaking agility), versatility (in both prey and hunting methods), and fierce devotion to (a small) family. Two particular tidbits that perked my ears were the boldness around humans and the size and strength of harpies’ talons. I am finding myself very interested… which means I get to do more and better research to see what else I can uncover. :D
Last year’s first H post was on heka (Egyptian magic).