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15 June 2021 Ethno-ornithological notes and neglected references on the Harpy Eagle Harpia harpyja in western Venezuela
Ángel L. Viloria, Manuel Lizarralde, P. Alexander Blanco, Christopher J. Sharpe
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Harpy Eagle Harpia harpyja has been documented only recently (2004) in the Lake Maracaibo basin of western Venezuela, specifically in the central Sierra de Perijá, at 1,100 m. Observations in the southern plains of the basin are reported from heretofore neglected sources published in 1599, 1889 and 1893. Two overlooked photographs of dead birds dating from 1947–51 (Perijá Mountains) and 1959 (Santa Bárbara del Zulia) are reproduced. Several other records are established (in 1974, the 1980s, 1994/95, 2002 and 2006), based on empirical observations and material evidence collected by anthropologists who have visited the still heavily forested area inhabited by the Barí people since the early 1960s. Circumstantial evidence of the use of Harpy Eagle bones and feathers by the indigenous Barí provides additional ethno-ornithological information. Although Harpy Eagle is currently categorised as Vulnerable in Venezuela, the cumulative historical evidence coupled with Species Distribution Modelling analysis predictions of suitable habitat locally available to the species suggests it might still be frequent in the western and southern Lake Maracaibo basin, where considerable expanses of tropical forest are conserved within four major protected areas and an indigenous reserve.

Griffons I have never felt to exist, although in the land of Veneçuela they vouchsafe that, in ancient times, one followed a man who was hunting on horseback, who approached it to see what it was, and as he drew close, it threw itself suddenly over him, and when he recognised it he fled with his horse, and it followed him half flying, up to a river into which this man threw himself with his horse, swimming, and the Griffon remained on the shore; and telling of this case he gave the natural features of a Griffon' (Vargas Machuca 1599: 154; translated by ALV & CJS)

This ancient Spanish chronicle referring to an encounter with a ‘griffon' in the ‘land of Veneçuela’ has a claim to be the earliest record in the country of Harpy Eagle Harpia harpyja. This assumption of identity can be supported on environmental and behavioural grounds: first, the anecdote probably occurred in the lowlands, where rivers are of sufficient width and depth for a horse to swim through. A bird of similar imposing size, like Andean Condor Vultur gryphus, could not have been the subject, as it almost exclusively inhabits the high Andes (Fjeldså & Krabbe 1990). Second, the horseman was attacked and followed by the animal, and managed to get a close enough look at the bird to ‘recognise it’, which is not easily achieved with most of the largest Neotropical raptors, except Harpia harpyja, whose lack of wariness around humans is proverbial and has long been known to attack people (e.g., Linnaeus 1758, Rettig 1978). In contrast, another very large, rather similar and partially sympatric raptor, the Crested Eagle Morphnus guianensis does not share this behaviour. This allegedly makes Harpies easy and irresistible targets for hunters, who are considered the main cause of the current decline (Álvarez-Cordero 1996, Stattersfield & Capper 2000, Hilty 2003, Trinca et al. 2008, Bierregaard et al. 2015, BirdLife International 2017, Schulenberg 2020).

If correctly interpreted, the record is especially interesting, for it illustrates the mythological dimension that Europeans afforded animal species in the Americas that lacked equivalent to any commonly found in the Old World. Furthermore, the historical context to this incident raises interesting zoogeographical questions, as four centuries ago the name ‘Veneçuela’ was applied to a province today represented by central and western parts of Venezuelan territory, a region where modern records of the species are very scarce and hitherto rather local.

Harpy Eagle, the largest Neotropical accipitrid and the world's most powerful bird of prey, occurs from southern Mexico to extreme north-east Argentina and southern Brazil (Rettig 1977, Hilty & Brown 1986, Sick 1988, Álvarez-Cordero 1996, Bierregaard et al. 2015, Schulenberg 2020). The species is distributed in lowland tropical forests, usually below 800 m, with a handful of documented sightings to 1,700 m (Bierregaard et al. 2015, Dove et al. 2018), including a previous record in Venezuela at 1,100 m (Ascanio & León 2004, Ascanio et al. 2017; see below). Some early records for Venezuela are from Bolívar state (Kavanayén and Salto Pará) and the north Coastal Range (Cumbre de Valencia, Rancho Grande, Caracas and río Chico) (Röhl 1956, Phelps & Phelps 1958, Meyer de Schauensee & Phelps 1978, Phelps & Meyer de Schauensee 1979). The rare presence of the species in the latter region has recently been confirmed (Ascanio et al. 2017, eBird 2020). Later, radio-tracking and sight records of Harpy Eagles have come from north of the Orinoco River in the Interior Range in Guatopo (Vargas et al. 2006), the llanos (Gómez Carredano 1994) and Caño Colorado (Redman 2008, Urbani et al. 2012). South of the Orinoco the species is widely distributed in Bolívar, Amazonas and the Orinoco Delta (Álvarez-Cordero et al. 1996, Lentino & Colvée 1998, Hilty 2003, Blanco 2009, Ascanio et al. 2017, eBird 2020).

Most comprehensive and recent ornithological works, to the start of the 21st century, do not mention the species for western Venezuela and adjacent Colombia (Hilty & Brown 1986, 2000, Hilty 2003), and none has provided documented records (Restall et al. 2006).

Distributional records given by Röhl (1956) relied mainly upon historical sightings by foreign travellers in Venezuela, such as Schomburgk (1840) and Appun (1871). A detailed scrutiny of both accounts reveals that Appun did obtain two old, stuffed specimens of Harpy Eagle from inhabitants of the village of San Esteban, in the foothills of the Coastal Range.

Röhl, an outstanding scholar of Venezuelan natural history, was interested in the contributions of European naturalists and travellers in Venezuela, particularly Germans (Röhl 1948). Despite his deep knowledge of the scientific work of Anton Goering (1836–1905), Röhl apparently failed to document (or rejected) Goering's observations concerning the presence of Harpy Eagle in the lowlands of the southern Lake Maracaibo basin. This news first appeared in the relatively obscure cultural magazine, El Zulia Ilustrado: ‘Needless to say, raptors abound in that region, and during our journey we had occasion to witness their deadly fights. We even managed to see the largest of all, called the Harpy, which establishes its dwelling in the highest crowns of the trees of the virgin jungle, whence it probably lies in wait for a sloth…' (Goering 1889: 42). Goering's first report was cited the same year in an illustrated article devoted to the species (Fig. 1): ‘Although it is not common, this bird also is found in the vast forests of Zulia; the German traveller Goering talks about it…’, ‘…an individual captured in the headwaters of one of our great rivers can be seen in the menagerie in the beautiful house of Mr. C. Witzke, Consul of Denmark in this city [= Maracaibo]’ (López-Rivas 1889: 108). On a second occasion Goering referred to an alleged Harpy Eagle in the forests of Onía, near Caño del Padre (1893: 26, 1962: 68): ‘before dawn, I saw in the heights, describing circles in the air, a Harpya destructor [sic], the most powerful eagle of South America. This majestic bird that surpasses our Royal Eagle [= Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos] in size, first seemed to me to be sighting a prey; however it later dropped, perching on a bare branch of a gigantic tree; I took advantage of the fortunate moment to observe as I pleased with my field glasses as if it were in front of me, its position and movements. Not long afterwards it lifted off again and disappeared in the thick vegetation'. In this case the behaviour described does not fully accord with that of Harpy Eagle. Goering perhaps misidentified a Crested Eagle, another very large predator, which does routinely soar and has a similar juvenile plumage. It is even rarer in the Lake Maracaibo basin, having only been documented on the east side in 2017 (eBird 2020). This is not unlikely, even if Goering was reputably well acquainted with birds; he was a professional collector for European museums and menageries, a taxidermist and world-famous natural history illustrator. His narrative is illustrated with a lithograph clearly representing a Harpy Eagle based on his own painting (Goering 1893: 25; Fig. 2).

Figure 1.

Engraving by an unknown artist, illustrating an article by Eduardo López Rivas about an encounter with a Harpy Eagle Harpia harpyja in western Venezuela (from El Zulia Ilustrado, Maracaibo 1889). The specimen depicted might represent a juvenile Harpy Eagle or possibly that of a Crested Eagle Morphnus guianensis, a species also found in the region.


A report by the late E. Mondolfi (pers. comm. to E. Álvarez in 1982) of a fledgling shot in 1959 near Santa Bárbara del Zulia in the southern Lake Maracaibo basin is supported by a photograph (Fig. 3; see also Álvarez-Cordero 1996).

Figure 2.

Lithograph of a Harpy Eagle Harpia harpyja from the lowland forest of the southern Lake Maracaibo basin, based on a painting by Anton Goering (Goering 1893).


Further documentary research has also yielded an impressive photograph of a group of Yukpa natives from the middle río Atapsi on the east slopes of the Sierra de Perijá (c.800–1,300 m, at the western border of the Lake Maracaibo basin) holding a dead Harpy Eagle (Fig. 4). It was taken by H. Ginés during an expedition of the Sociedad de Ciencias Naturales La Salle to these remote mountains, sometime during 1947–51 (Hoyos 1988). It is somewhat puzzling, however, that as Ginés was an ornithologist he did not mention the species in his comprehensive, annotated list of birds of the Perijá Mountains (Ginés et al. 1953).

More than 50 years later, on 18 July 2004, D. Ascanio photographed two Harpy Eagles at 1,100 m in the Lajas River basin, c.50 km north-northeast of the río Atapsi (Ascanio & León 2004). This record permitted López-O. et al. (2014) and Ascanio et al. (2017) to include the Venezuelan side of the Perijá Mountains within the species' known distribution.

On 27 October 2006, while conducting field work in the southern Perijá Mountains, one of us (PAB), found an abandoned nest of Harpy Eagle nearly 30 m above ground on the main branch of a Ceiba tree in premontane forest, near one of the northern tributaries of the río del Norte (09°23′1.18″N, 73°01′33.25″W; 210 m). It was identified by its dimensions (diameter 305 cm, depth 95 cm) and situation, in a main fork, and being constructed of thick branches mean 8.6 cm in diameter. Such a nest is clearly bigger than, and different from, that of Crested Eagle (e.g., diameter 220 cm, depth 42 cm, branch thickness 3.5 cm, usually sited in secondary forks; PAB unpubl.). Associated with this nest were bones of several mammal species: White-fronted Capuchin Cebus albifrons (one skull), Venezuelan Red Howler Alouatta seniculus (one skull each of a juvenile and an adult), Northern Tamandua Tamandua mexicana (one skull), Hoffmann's Two-toed Sloth Choloepus hoffmanni (two skulls, three humeri, two femurs); and the pelvic girdle of a large bird, possibly a Yellow-knobbed Curassow Crax daubentoni.

Figure 3.

Photograph taken by an officer of the Venezuelan Ministerio de Agricultura y Cría in the airport of Santa Bárbara del Zulia (1959). Local people holding a recently shot grown juvenile Harpy Eagle Harpia harpyja (with permission of E. Mondolfi to PAB)


In this region, the Barí, another indigenous people in the Sierra de Perijá, have reported killing several Harpy Eagles in the last 38 years. Anthropologists visiting their territory since the early 1960s learnt of the presence of this species not only via cultural reference but also occasional observations of the bird itself. An individual was seen by one of us (ML) and his father, R. Lizarralde, in July 1974 atop the Serranía de Abusanqui, north of the Aricuaisá River, on the trail from ‘Hacienda el Rodeo' to the village of Saimadoyi. In interviews with the Barí of Saimadoyi in April 1990, ML questioned them about the names of different birds using the illustrations in Meyer de Schauensee & Phelps (1978) as reference. They recognised the Harpy Eagle and named it ‘bakóoba’ or ‘banko-banko'.

In addition to these anecdotal reports, ML was able to collect empirical evidence in their support. Firstly, in the late 1980s a Barí man (names of informants are not revealed for their protection) possessed a 7–8 cm-talon of a Harpy Eagle he had hunted in c.1983 in the community of Aruutatakae (at the south-west corner of Ciénagas del Catatumbo National Park and 20 km north of the río Catatumbo from the village of Campo Rosario). The difference in talon size between Harpy and Crested Eagles is significant: that of a Harpy can be twice or three times the size of a Crested Eagle's, based on measurements taken of live birds by PAB, who has measured 47 Harpy (mean 8.6 cm for n = 20 males; 12.3 cm for n = 27 females) and 12 Crested Eagles (mean 3.5 cm for n = 5 males; mean 4.8 cm for n = 7 females).

Figure 4.

Photograph taken by Hermano Ginés during an expedition of the Sociedad de Ciencias Naturales La Salle to the Sierra de Perijá (at the western border of the Lake Maracaibo basin, c.1947–51), showing a group of natives (Yukpa) from the Atapsi River valley holding a recently shot adult Harpy Eagle Harpia harpyja (from Hoyos 1988, with permission)


The Barí informant explained that in his culture, this talon is a talisman that helps improve their aim while hunting, invoked by cupping their hands around the talon while closing their eyes and chanting their ‘secrets'. These specialised chants are known only by a few elders. ‘Secrets' are similar to Buddhist mantras that are whispered and repeated many times. This Barí stated that the Harpy Eagle's vision is very powerful and the one holding its talon acquires exceptional vision with the help of the ‘secrets’ (R. Lizarralde pers. comm. 2004).

Also, twice ML witnessed a feather-fan being used to blow air on kitchen fires. The first was in the home of a Barí at Saimadoyi (at the confluence of the Baksarani and Bachichida Rivers) in January 1995. This fan comprised the tail and primary feathers of two Harpy Eagles, one adult and one juvenile, identified by P. W. Trail (see Fig. 5). The feathers of the adult were harvested in August 1994, 15 km south of Saimadoyi in the headwaters of the río del Norte (at the foot of the Sierra de Perijá). According to this Barí, while carefully aiming his shotgun at a curassow high in the forest canopy, a Harpy Eagle struck the target with its talon. The shotgun blast hit both birds, killing the Harpy Eagle too. This hunter kept one of the eagle's talons as a talisman. The second occasion was in June 2002, in the northern headwaters of the río Lora, when ML saw a different feather-fan in a kitchen owned by another Barí. This fan was made of 15 or 18 tail and wing feathers of another Harpy. When asked about these feathers, he claimed they were from an eagle he had hunted in the upper Serranía de Abusanqui, a few km west of his house. Identification in this case was based on standard ethnozoological methods, in which the witness determined the species concerned using an illustrated field guide.

Figure 5.

Top to bottom: two fresh rectrices of Harpy Eagle Harpia harpyja, a smaller worn tail feather or secondary of a Harpy or Crested Eagle Morphnus guianensis, and a Harpy Eagle primary (P. W. Trail in litt. to CJS, September 2016). These are from at least one or more large eagles taken by Barí people in the headwaters of the río del Norte, south of the village of Saimadoyi, in the Sierra de Perijá, Venezuela, August 1994.


The locations of the sightings described are similar, with little human presence and abundant fauna, especially spider (Ateles), howler (Alouatta) and capuchin (Cebus) monkeys, and several species of cracids (Lizarralde 2002, 2019, 2020). Therefore, Ciénagas del Catatumbo National Park, the southern Serranía de Abusanqui, and the upper Barí part of the Sierra de Perijá possess abundant food for Harpy Eagles (Beckerman & Lizarralde 2013, Lizarralde 2019, 2020).


The historical and recent data presented here (Fig. 6) reveal that the occurrence of Harpy Eagle in the Lake Maracaibo basin was overlooked by ornithologists during the 20th century, particularly in the Perijá Mountains and the Catatumbo lowlands despite the production of several avifaunal monographs during that period (Phelps 1943, Ginés et al. 1953, Seijas 1984, Viloria & Calchi 1993).

The lack of awareness of such a large bird of prey is unsurprising, as several other large and conspicuous vertebrates frequent in those regions remained either unknown or unconfirmed until recently. Notable are other raptors such as Andean Condor (Calchi & Viloria 1991) and Solitary Eagle Buteogallus solitarius (CJS unpubl.), as well as Spectacled Bear Tremarctos ornatus (Viloria et al. 1997), the endemic Zulia Toad-headed Sideneck Mesoclemmys zuliae (Pritchard & Trebbau 1984, Trebbau & Pritchard 2016), and the fish Dorada Brycon polylepis (Moscó-Morales 1988).

Harpy Eagle is rare and declining throughout the Neotropics (Vargas et al. 2006, Bierregaard et al. 2015, BirdLife International 2017). It generally requires large, uninterrupted expanses of rainforest to survive, although it will nest in areas disturbed by logging, intermixed with patches of pristine vegetation (Blanco 2007). Its range has been contracting (and population probably decreasing) over the last few decades, and in addition to having been extirpated locally, it is now very scarce over most of Middle America and at the southern edge of its range in north-east Argentina and Paraguay. The main threats are a combination of reduction of habitat and direct hunting (Álvarez & Ellis 1994, Álvarez-Cordero 1996, Stattersfield & Capper 2000, Blanco 2007, 2009, Trinca et al. 2008, Blanco & Álvarez 2009, Bierregaard et al. 2015, BirdLife International 2017, Schulenberg 2020). As a result, the species is considered globally Near Threatened, nearly meeting criteria A2cd+3cd+4cd (a reduction in range and/or habitat quality plus elevated levels of exploitation; IUCN 2001, BirdLife International 2017).

Figure 6.

Map of the western and southern Lake Maracaibo basin in northern South America (Venezuela and Colombia) showing the location of Harpy Eagle Harpia harpyja records mentioned in the text.


In Venezuela, Harpy Eagle is considered Vulnerable at the national level (Sharpe 2008, Sharpe et al. 2015), a status enshrined in national legislation (Venezuela 1996a,b). The records presented here and predictions based on Species Distribution Modelling (SDM) analysis (Miranda et al. 2019) suggest that the species might still be frequent in the southern and western Lake Maracaibo basin, where considerable areas of tropical forest are conserved within four strict protected areas and an indigenous reserve: Catatumbo-Barí Natural National Park (IUCN Cat. II; 1,581 km2) in Colombia; Sierra de Perijá (IUCN Cat. II; 2,953 km2) and Ciénagas del Catatumbo (IUCN Cat. II; 2,694 km2) National Parks, Ciénagas de Juan Manuel Wildlife Reserve (IUCN Cat. IV; 715 km2) and the Barí Indigenous Reserve (2,320 km2; Lizarralde & Lizarralde 2002, Lizarralde & Lizarralde 2015, expanding Barí territory from 2,000 km2 first decreed by the government [Venezuela 1961]) in Venezuela. We recommend that local ornithologists urgently instigate a population assessment plan in western Venezuela and search for the species in neighbouring Colombia.


We thank Roberto Lizarralde (†) for sharing unpublished information (field notes now in the hands of M. Lizarralde), and Astolfo Mata, Jon Paul Rodríguez and Bernardo Urbani for their help in locating some recent references. Héctor Suárez kindly digitized the images for Figs. 12. Neil Rettig and Tania Sanaiotti provided expert opinion, whilst Dan Brooks, David Díaz, Alex Lees and Dave Whitacre helped in various ways. An anonymous referee provided useful comments on the submitted version. We especially thank Pepper W. Trail of the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory for a detailed assessment of the identity of feathers.



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© 2021 The Authors; This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Ángel L. Viloria, Manuel Lizarralde, P. Alexander Blanco, and Christopher J. Sharpe "Ethno-ornithological notes and neglected references on the Harpy Eagle Harpia harpyja in western Venezuela," Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club 141(2), 156-166, (15 June 2021).
Received: 6 August 2020; Published: 15 June 2021

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