Dangerous Birds

A lot of people seem to forget that, though Deinonychus  and even New Zealand’s Moa and Maori- eating Haast’s eagle are gone, we still have some dangerous modern dinosaurs. This thought was prompted by an e-mail discussion among well- informed friends last week.

My money for real danger is on Stephanoaetus coronatus, which always seems to be sizing you up for a meal– they SCARE me. Craig Golden, who photographed one that was used for monkey control in Zimbabwe, told me that until she had killed, she just kept watching him, in a way he didn’t like at all. The artist D. M. Reid- Henry had one kill a German shepherd in a London park (he then emigrated, also to  to Zimbabwe). They are also as agile as big Goshawks– just below is  pic of scientist, falconer, and saluki man Alberto Palleroni with a “little” male. They have been credited with the death of the “Taung baby” australopithecine in SouthAfrica, and implicated in the death of children in Zambia.

But any of the  big jungle eagles, or the Golden, will do. Anyone who thinks birds are less scary than “lizards”  has no experience with big predators.

The discussion  began with this photo of a baby coronatus and her FEET, on Matt’s Facebook.

Matt said: “Hard to imagine there have been bigger eagles but then, there were bigger dinosaurs too!”

To which Arthur replied: “Have been?  Are!  I think the Harpy and Philippine and Steller’s sea eagle at least are bigger.”

And everybody jumped in. Annyushka, on vacation in Europe: “Female Harpies and Crowned eagles basically tie for weight, up to 22-23lbs. Steller’s are the largest for pure wingspan; a big female will get just over 8ft. Phillipines have extraordinarily-long tails, but are still smaller than the other 2 forest eagles.”

A big Harpy.

Matt again: ” When I was 15 I walked up to the Harpy cage at Summit Gardens in Panama, which was your basic chain link fence box and contained two adult birds on perches that ran lengthwise across the inclosure. One of the perches came about to my chest height, and as I walked up to the perch, the larger of the two birds walked with purpose toward me down the plank, her talons wrapping around the 2X4 like a twig.

“We each stopped a few inches apart, separated mostly by air and the fact that her feet were too big to fit through the aperture of wire between us.  She bent down to look me in the eye and flipped her head sideways in the gesture I know now to be a raptor’s playful engagement. But there was no question which of us was the greater creature, or all else equal and minus a thin metal screen, which of us would be at the others’ mercy.

“A few minutes later, the zoo keeper arrived with a live chicken under one arm and clucked to his charges to get their attention.  The female’s gaze never left me. But the male flapped down with a palpable whoosh and waited on the ground by the gate for his dinner.  The man tossed the chicken in, which took about a step before the Harpy’s foot took it wholly by the chest and gave it a squeeze, killing it all but for a few brief spasms.

“My feeling since then about the relative sizes of eagles is that once they reach the minimum size required to crush a 15 yer old’s head, a few extra pounds or inches are immaterial.  :)”

Me: “And the Lammergeier, though not an eagle, is impressive too, as are the Lappet-faced and Eurasian black vultures, all of which I have been privileged to see in the wild, the last two in the Tian Shan.The Lappet-faced vulture was dominating a wary crowd of Griffon vultures which stood in a circle around it as it fed on the waste of a crocodile, as intimidated as though it were a lion. Jonathan Kingdon has a skull of one I’ve always coveted. He says they kill antelope!”

Torgos by Reid;  Lammergeier by Dr Rock

Matt: “The local zoo here has a lappet faced vulture that, when we first moved here to La., they were interested in having me train for flight display.  I had never even seen one, but I thought, how big could the thing possibly be?  When they showed me the bird, the notion of training it (at least my training of it) went out the window.  Somehow even a large eagle seems comprehensible and manageable as a scaled-up hawk.  And plenty of people train them, obviously.

“But a vulture at that size–and these old world jobs are basically long necked eagles; and the LFV in particular clearly has working feet—are able to get you from more angles with more weapons.

“My friend Eric Edwards, who has trained white backed vultures for shows, respects them appropriately. They had a bit in one show I recall where the audience was asked to count down from 10: the time it took the WBV on Eric’s fist to turn a large turkey drum stick to bare bone.”

Arthur on the Haast’s:”Where the authors estimate that it was about 30% heavier than a harpy.  I would love to see this re-done with more data points and with the knowledge that the bird was in fact a hieraaetuus.  Still, as the authors point out, even if they are 10% off, the eagle was still gigantic and still bigger than a harpy.

“The picture they paint is of a goshawk-ish creature.  Relatively short wings, long tail, and muscles optimized for bursts of speed.

“Strange to think that there was, within recent human history, an ecosystem on a biggish chunk of land where the apex predator was flying.

“I wonder what that would have meant for the temperament of the birds.  Most eagles are kings of the air, but they can still get eaten on the land by all sorts of mammalian predators.  Prior to humans the only threat to an adult Haast’s eagle would have been another Haast’s eagle.

“I would also love to see a re-appraisal of the possible prey selection of the Haast’s eagle based on the knowledge that their was only one giant moa species; the multiplicity of sizes of remains being the result of sexual dimorphism!”

Two more thoughts, and images.The late Col;onel Jeff Cooper, justly famed for pistolcraft, once wrote me the following. note when I told him that the  Kazakhs hunt wolves with eagles: “PUPPIES, perhaps; hundred pounders, unlikely!” Trouble is, he wrote that after seeing THIS:

(To which Jonathan Hanson responded “He was a great man, but he should have perished in the Cretaceous Extinction Event.”)

And here are Darren Naish’s Killer Eagles:

1 thought on “Dangerous Birds”

  1. I'll certainly always remember feeling the wind from the wings of an enormous golden that passed about six inches over our heads while we worked our way down a knife-edge ridge at 11,000 feet in Wyoming. I always wonder if she decided at the last second not to eat me when she saw there were two of us. Watching her glide down and away from us out towards the Tetons may be the most amazing sight I've ever seen.

Leave a Comment