Harpy Eagle sighted at Cornell Lab!

Text and images by Kevin McGowan
May 6, 2011
Harpy Eagle Neil Rettig with a captive Harpy Eagle.

Okay, it was a captive Harpy Eagle, but nevertheless, when the world’s largest raptor pays a visit to your workplace it tends to grab your attention, even if you can’t count it on your ABA list. On Monday and Tuesday we were lucky to have a visit from videographer Neil Rettig, who helped film our Mississippi River Delta videos. He was here to talk about his exploits filming some of the world’s most magnificent raptors. He happens to live with a trained Harpy Eagle himself, so he brought him along. Kevin McGowan was there to take photos, and he has this short account. –Hugh Powell

The Harpy Eagle of the American tropics is the largest of the eagles in the world (by weight, strength, and claw size), which means it is the biggest predatory bird living today. It is one impressive animal. On top of having talons larger than the claws of a grizzly bear, it also has this cool tufty hairdo of a crest and wings that are almost as wide as they are long.

Harpy EagleCal casts a predatory eye on Neil's wife as she crosses the room.

The last Monday Night Seminar of spring was given by Neil Rettig, an award-winning nature photographer. Neil got his start climbing giant trees in South America and taking the first films of Harpy Eagle nests. Hazards included falling from 150 foot trees, tropical diseases, and having your head ripped off by parental harpies! Which is why all the climbers wore motorcycle helmets and went in and out of their high altitude tree blinds at night.

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On top of talking about his experiences and showing films of eagle nests (Philippine Monkey-eating Eagles are spectacular!!!), Neil brought along Cal, his male Harpy Eagle. These guys eat large monkeys and sloths, and Cal was definitely interested in the small children in the audience. [Editor’s note: We took this possibility very seriously. Children were kept away from Cal. Neil kept a firm grip on the jesses that held Cal to his falconer’s glove, and as an extra safety measure, had an extra rope tying Cal to his waist.]

Captive birds often form strong attachments to their owners, and Neil said that Cal did not like his wife, Laura Johnson. When he flies the eagle loose on their farm in Wisconsin, Laura stays inside the house. That reminded me of the 1971 made-for-TV movie with Hugh O’Brian and Elizabeth Ashley called Harpy. Its seemingly far-fetched plot involves using a Harpy Eagle as a murder weapon on an ex-wife.

I have to say, based on Cal’s expression when Laura moved across the room, that B-movie didn’t seem so ridiculous to me.


  • Rhiannon

    That is AMAZING

  • Michelle Charette

    Whoa! That is the coolest bird I have ever seen! Would not want to get on his bad side.

  • paula

    Yikes! I’m glad they are not around here.

  • Sally Eldermire

    The whole presentation was amazing. Seeing a bird like that in person really makes yo9u appreciate the effort that goes into conservation.

  • unbelievable. how will the flooding affect their habitat?

  • Bill Langford

    Several years ago when Neil had just gotten Cal, we met Neil, Cal & Kramer (Neil’s Red Tailed Hawk). Several of us went out with Neil, Cal & Kramer along with several of Neil’s friends who brought their raptors – a Golden Eagle, a Crested Hawk-Eagle & a Goshawk.
    During the outing, we were sitting out of the wind and resting, when Cal launched and flew toward my wife’s face (she had on sunglasses), luckily the jesses were short enough that Cal went into the dirt rather than latching onto her face. Neil said that Cal was going after the reflection in her sunglasses. Now, after reading the above entry, I am not sure. Perhaps Cal at that younger age did not like females.

  • Hugh

    Hi Bill, thanks for the story. It must have been something else to be in the company of so many large raptors that day. Glad to hear Neil and the other falconers had taken the appropriate precautions: a Harpy Eagle and its talons are nothing to fool around with.

  • August

    Harpy eagles are my favorite species of eagle. I wish they lived around here.

  • rowe

    I love those birds. i saw two of them in south america! one in the wild

  • dagobarbz

    As a falconer, I would not want to see one of those birds angry at me. I once had a changeable hawk eagle from Sri Lanka, it was a smaller version of a harpy; deep forest bird with crest. When he was angry about something, he was better left alone to chill out. Things like a misplaced pebble would piss him off. He was a bird of strict habits. Anything out of place, he got irate.

    (protip: see that harpy eagle’s tongue? Trust me, he does NOT want to lick you!)

Harpy Eagle sighted at Cornell Lab!