Discover World’s Largest Eagle

Haast's Eagle SkullHaast’s eagle was the largest eagle to have ever lived. They lived in New Zealand until about 1400 when the Maori people hunted the moa to extinction. Haast’s eagle weighed about 33 pounds when fully grown and relied on the giant moa as its main food source. When the moa went extinct, so did Haast’s eagle.

Being isolated on New Zealand and having access to prey as large as the moa made for an unusually fast evolution for Haast’s eagle. Based on DNA evidence, Haast’s eagle diverged from their closest relatives, the little eagle and the booted eagle, just two million to 700,000 years ago. In this short period of time, they experienced an increase in weight of 10 to 15 times.

 

Haast's Eagle TalonRather than soaring high in the air to spot prey, Haast’s eagle probably flew in forests and in dense scrublands. They had a much smaller wingspan than other raptors relative to their size. An adult had a wingspan not exceeding 10 feet across.

The moa was about 15 times larger than the Haast’s eagle. The eagle would have relied on their sharp talons (which were three inches long) and beak to tear at the moa enough for them to die of blood loss. There were no other large predators on New Zealand at the time so Haast’s eagle could have fed on one moa for many days without competition.

But the moa might now have been the only animal that Haast’s eagle hunted. It is now considered very likely that the mythological pouakai of the Maori refers to Haast’s eagle. The pouakai in legend is a monstrous bird that kills children. Given the eagle’s size, it is entirely possible that they could have killed human children. The killing probably went both ways, though. The bones of Haast’s eagles have been found in prehistoric midden sites around New Zealand. They are also depicted in numerous cave paintings around New Zealand.

Wing Span Haast's Eagle

 

It is impossible yet to know what the coloration of Haast’s eagle was. Some speculate that they had colorful yellow feathers while others find it more likely that they had darker brown feathers, like other living forest eagle species. Descriptions of the pouakai say that it had black feathers, with some yellow and green, and red feathers on the head. Maybe using new technology, like the kind used to determine the colors of dinosaurs’ feathers, we will be able to know for sure one day.

 

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