NZ Birds of Prey / Extinct / Haast's eagle
What did Haast's eagle look like?
The Haast’s Eagle was the biggest, baddest, most magnificent eagle ever to have existed in the world. It is known in Māori legend as te hōkioi or pouākai and there is little doubt that early settlers would have fallen victim to this most terrifying of aerial predators!↑
With a wingspan of between two and three metres, and weighing up to 13 kilograms, the Haast’s eagle is the largest eagle ever to have existed in the world. It is thought to have been heavier in relation to wing size than any of the eagles alive today. From its skeleton it appears related to the little eagle of Australia (Hieraaetus morphnoides), and there is evidence that its wings were comparitively short and its legs stronger than those of other eagles.The size and strength of its legs and talons indicate that it was an effective and active predator, able to kill very large prey.
Its largest claws were as long as 9cm, making them as large as those of a tiger! Sadly the colour of its plumage is pure speculation. There have been fanciful reconstructions giving the bird a crest and colourful plumage similar to the ornate hawk eagle Spizaetus ornatus which like many tropical birds is more brightly coloured than temperate forms. However, most New Zealand birds are not brightly coloured and most experts agree that it is most likely to have been a more sombre brown or brownish-grey similar to the other very large forest eagles found around the world today.
What other names does the Haast's eagle have?
Scientists call it: Harpagornis moorei
Māori knew it as: te hōkioi or pouākai – the old glutton. Although it is unclear whether pākehā and other settlers encountered the Haast’s eagle, those that did probably barely had the chance to run away – let alone give it a name!
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Where & when did Haast's eagle live?
Since pre-Polynesian New Zealand was largely forest covered and most remains have come from areas still forested, it seems most likely that the Haast’s eagle was a forest and/or forest fringe dweller. The shortened wing bones would also suggest adaptation to a more forested environment. Skeletons of Haast’s eagles have been found in the drier eastern parts of the South Island, but they probably also occurred in the North Island as well.
When and why did this enormous predator go extinct? The Haast’s eagle went extinct relatively recently. Evidence shows that this huge eagle existed when Māori first arrived in New Zealand some 800 years ago, and accounts suggest that it may even have still existed when Europeans arrived in the early 1800s. The Māori legend of pouākai no doubt refers to the Haast’s eagle, and bone remains have been found within human midden sites (a midden is a mound of domestic refuse marking the site of a human settlement).
But how did such a powerful and dominating bird become extinct? Because it could not adapt to change. Like other large predators the food requirements of the Haast’s eagle would have meant that they hunted over a very large area. This would have resulted in a low population density and low overall population size. Like other large raptors it probably also had a very low reproductive rate. These attributes would have made it very prone to the dramatic changes brought about by the arrival of humans, such as the clearing of bush which not only reduced the available habitat for Haast’s eagle but, most significantly, reduced the amount of available prey. Hunting by Māori led to the extinction of moa which likely comprised much of the eagle's diet and there is no doubt that these early settlers may have tried to kill the eagle at every opportunity. Haast’s eagle numbers soon fell and eventually declined to extinction.↑
What did such a large predator Eat?
Other very large birds of course! Before human colonisation, the New Zealand fauna was dominated by birds, many of them flightless and many of them very large - the largest of these being the giant moa, the tallest birds ever to have existed. Evidence of talon marks on moa skeletons confirm that they predated on these large birds - prey that weighed up to 200 kilograms!↑
They would also have preyed upon other flightless birds, particularly Aptornis, weka, takahē, flightless geese and ducks. But the most spine chilling thought is that they must also have preyed on humans – just imagine if this eagle still existed – it would have made a Sunday stroll in the bush a much more sobering experience!!
What Can we learn from the story of this magnificent raptor?
This story reminds us of the links in life, the unforeseen repercussions of our actions. If we are to ensure the same story is not told by future generations about the spectacular birds of prey that still survive here today, we must remain mindful of these lessons. To protect our birds of prey, we must first protect our environment.
Do you want to learn more about Haast’s Eagle?
Then check out the list of references below and visit us at the Wingspan National Bird of Prey Centre in Rotorua to hear about these magnificent eagles and learn about them from our expert staff.
• Holdaway, R. N. 1991. Systematics and Palaeobiology of Haast’s Eagle Harpagornis moorei Haast 1872. PhD thesis Christchurch: University of Canterbury
• Millener, P.R. 1981. The Quarternary avifauna of the North Island, New Zealand. PhD thesis, University of Auckland, New Zealand
• Tennison, A., and Martinson, P. 2006. Extinct birds of New Zealand. Te Papa Press, Wellington, New Zealand
• Worthy, T. H., and Holdaway R. N. 2002. The Lost World of the Moa: Prehistoric Life of New Zealand. Canterbury University Press, Christchurch
images: © Megahan, Harder, Jacobs © Canterbury Museum, © Chirinos Science Photo Library