Sunday, March 7, 2010

Meeting Luigi

This is a harpy eagle, Harpia harpyja. Harpies, among the the largest raptors in the world, are native to the rainforests of Central and South America, where they hunt monkeys, sloths, and other arboreal mammals. Their stout, powerful feet can exert over 500 pounds per square inch of pressure; their largest talons are roughly the size of grizzly bear claws. They can lift approximately three-quarters of their own body weight and, like many raptors, routinely kill animals many times their own size.


This is a smallish primate (who also happens to be my daughter) tidbitting a harpy eagle. Don't try this at home, kids.


Ellie is under the watchful eye of Peregrine Fund biologist Jim Willmarth, who I first met over a decade ago when I was doing some summer work with the P-Fund in Montana. He kindly gave us a behind-the-scenes look at The Peregrine Fund's World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise.

This eagle, Luigi, is an eight-year old male, raised at a captive-breeding facility in Panama and originally slated to be a breeding bird. Things didn't work out with his intended mate, a particularly aggressive female, and due to his own exceptionally easygoing temperament he became an educational bird—an ambassador for his species, which has been threatened by shooting as well as habitat destruction. [Learn more about The Peregrine Fund's work with harpy eagles here.] Luigi is exceedingly well-manned, playful and very cognizant of his own strength; we watched him gently push Jim's hand aside where another raptor (my redtail Stekoa, for example) might have footed in earnest. Jim also told us of tidbitting Luigi with a piece of liver; Luigi refused to take it, apparently believing Jim to be injured, until Jim showed him by moving it around that it was separate and not a piece of his own flesh.


Ellie, always an admirer of raptors, is now positively smitten with harpy eagles, thanks to Jim's generosity and Luigi's approachability. I'm sure there are plenty of Panamanian and Belizean kids who will grow up with an appreciation of harpies thanks to their own early encounters with Luigi. It's easy to become discouraged about environmental education when it's done badly—and trust me, I've seen it done badly—but done right, it just might be the silver bullet.

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