Condors and vultures are the biggest birds of prey, but the most powerful avian killers are eagles.
By Rex Graham
A contest involving any of the 60 eagle species vying for the “World’s Most Powerful” belt would involve only females because they are much bigger than males.
Eagles overpower prey with weight, size, attitude and other tools of the trade. A strong grip drives dagger-like talons deep. Sharply hooked razor beaks reduce and dismember mammals, reptiles and other birds in minutes.
The Harpy Eagle is Central and South America’s presumptive winner of the “most-powerful” crown. “The Harpy Eagle, which inhabits Tropical lowlands from southern Mexico to northern Argentina, is the largest (up to 9 kg) and most powerful bird of prey in the world,” wrote University of California, Davis Zoology Professor Peter Sherman in Folia Primatology.
Sherman’s assertion has been repeated so often, it must be true. Right?
Not so fast.
Harpy Eagle Challenger
The Harpy is indeed an apex predator with a 201 cm (6.6 ft) wingspan carrying 9 kg (20 lb) of menacing muscle. It specializes on sloths, monkeys and a variety of other large forest mammals and reptiles. The Philippine Eagle is similarly sized.
The fearsome Golden Eagle reaches only 6.7 kg (14.8 lb), but has a longer wingspan at 237 cm (7.8 ft) and hunt as pairs to take prey as large as young reindeer. It uses larger wings to soar, while the Harpy’s more compact wingspan enables it to more efficiently maneuver within forests.
Raw power of an eagle is more than weight, size. Another factor in an eagle’s power rating is the beak. All eagles have wickedly hooked ones. These instruments dispatch and dismantle prey quickly and efficiently to reduce chances of injury and to eat as quickly as possible before thieving crows arrive.
The total power of an eagle is more than the sum of its weight and wingspan. Attitude counts. So, too, does the talons and especially the beak, the business end of the killing machine.
Asian Eagle Challenger
With everything factored in, the Steller’s Sea-eagle is as more powerful than a Harpy. The Steller’s not only matches the Harpy’s 20-pound weight, but also has a longer wingspan (245 cm or 8 ft) to spend more time hunting on the wing.
The Steller’s talon-tipped toes grab salmon, alive or dead, that weigh nearly as much as the eagle itself.
The massive, bright-yellow bill distinguishes the Steller’s from all other eagles. The upper jaw is unusually thick, long and razor sharp. It ends in an immense hook.
The sea-eagle’s skull also has a unique shape with bulges and groves that make room for the largest jaw muscles of any eagle. Everything comes together in a terrifyingly efficient way.
“Steller’s Sea Eagles can consume about 900 g of fish in 3-4 minutes,” Russian scientists Alexander Ladyguin wrote in the First Symposium on Steller’s and White-tailed Sea Eagles in East Asia. “In comparison, the White-tailed Sea-eagle feeding at the same locations spent about 18 minutes to consume the same amount, and the Golden Eagle requires 28 minutes.”
The eagle quickly convinces Ospreys, gulls and other birds carrying prey to drop it, or else.
The vulnerable Steller’s Sea-eagle may not get the attention of the Harpy Eagle, but it wins my vote as the most powerful eagle on earth.
I believe that the more we watch, photograph, and study Steller’s Sea-eagles, the better for the species, all birds, all wildlife and all humans.
More Eagles & Hawks
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