The Canal and Central Panama Feature
The Harpy Eagle
The harpy eagle, Panama's national bird, is an impressive creature, with a beak the size of a jackknife, talons as long as a grizzly bear's claws, and a plumed crest evoking a war bonnet. It is one of the world's largest and most powerful raptors, with a wingspan of almost 6½ feet, and can tear a full-grown monkey out of a treetop with one swoop. Since pre-Columbian times the bird has maintained a mythical stature among the region's indigenous peoples. But because it is perched at the top of a food chain in an endangered ecosystem, the harpy is threatened in most of its range.
The harpy (Harpia harpyja) was once common from southeast Mexico to northern Argentina, but hunting and deforestation have practically wiped the species out north of Panama and are steadily reducing its numbers in South America. Panama still has a significant number of harpies—hundreds, perhaps—thanks to the work of conservation groups and governmental protection of vast expanses of rain forest. Harpies require large areas of forest to survive because their prey is relatively scarce; accordingly, deforestation hits them hard. They also have a low reproductive rate, mating only once every two years, when they build a life-raft-size nest atop a large kapok or quipo tree—the tallest trees in the rain forest—and spend the next year raising one chick. The U.S. conservation group Peregrine Fund (www.peregrinefund.org) is working to save the harpy eagle in Panama by breeding captive birds on loan from zoos—they remove eggs so that the females lay more—then releasing young birds into the wild. The organization also runs an educational program for people in rural communities where the raptors live.
Panama is one of the countries where you are most likely to see the elusive harpy eagle. They are most common in the eastern Darién Province, but have been spotted in Soberanía, Chagres, and other central parks. If you are lucky enough to encounter a perched harpy, you may be able to get pretty close, because the birds generally don't fear people and are curious, which unfortunately works to the advantage of poachers. One place you are guaranteed to spot a harpy eagle is Parque Municipal Summit, the botanical garden and zoo north of Panama City, which has captive birds and an excellent display about them.
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