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March 16, 2009 | by  | in Opinion |
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Haast’s Eagle: omg wtf

science

Consider the following options, and ask yourself which one sounds cooler:

a) New Zealand has no killer fauna, and most of its birds don’t even fly

b) New Zealand has a mighty eagle that will swoop down from the sky to kill you, puny human.

Obviously, the correct answer is b.

Haast’s Eagle was fraking awesome. Not only was it big, it is the biggest eagle to have ever lived. Although its wingspan, at a maximum of about three metres, is similar to that of the largest eagles today, Haast’s Eagle weighed about a third more than these eagles. The female weighed up to 15 kilograms, the male up to 13 kilos. Most of this weight was in the eagle’s massively muscled body, particularly in its legs. Any bigger, and it wouldn’t have been able to fly.

You might know that some moa weighed over 200 kilos, and so you might think that 15 kilos isn’t that impressive. But if you think that, you’re wrong. Haast’s Eagles killed and ate moa.

The Haast’s Eagle would swoop down from a high perch at speeds of up to 80 kilometres an hour to land on a moa. According to the Te Papa website, the impact of the eagle’s landing would have been similar to that of “being hit by a 12 kilogram rock dropped from the top of Te Papa”. Upon landing, the Haast’s Eagle drove its talons (which were the size of tiger’s claws) centimetres into the moa’s flesh and bone, crushing its pelvis and organs therein, and causing massive internal bleeding. The moa bled to death, or died of shock, or both. Having no predators, the eagle could then lounge around eating the moa at its leisure, by ripping the body open with its beak to reach the organs inside.

Being so darn good at killing moa, Haast’s Eagles could kill people just as easily: from the impact of landing, by puncturing a human skull with its talons, or by snapping a person’s neck, for example. Indeed, when Europeans arrived in New Zealand, Māori spoke of a legendary bird that devoured children and adults alike. Legendary, because one of the skills at which humankind excels is wiping out species, and Haast’s Eagle was no exception.

When Māori arrived in New Zealand, they burned off much of the Haast’s Eagle’s forest habitat, and hunted its main food source (the moa) to extinction, as well as hunting the eagle itself – for food, bones to use as tools, and because it was so very frightening. Māori called the eagle Pouakai. It’s called Haast’s Eagle now because Haast “described” it in 1872 (which apparently isn’t enough to get things named after you today – I just described my computer aloud while typing this paragraph, and to my disappointment the computer isn’t known as Friedlander’s Compute-a-matic … yet).

By the time Europeans arrived in New Zealand to kill off some more species and subjugate their human brothers and sisters, the Haast Eagle survived only in legend and art. There is a popular story that an explorer, Charles Douglas, shot and ate the last breeding pair of Haast’s Eagles in the 1870s in the Landsborough River valley, just below Haast’s Pass. However, unless the eagles had been on a 500 year diet (which is about how long the moa had been extinct for), the birds he ate were probably just Eyles’ Harriers.

And so, with the extinction of the mighty Haast’s Eagle, we are left with an almost blind, shuffling little flightless bird for a national emblem. How much more fearsome would our sports teams be if they had a mighty killer as a mascot? Probably heaps more. It is my thesis that we would beat Australian teams at least twice as much as we do now if the Haast’s Eagle was our national bird. Then again, Australia had a 70 kilogram carnivorous kangaroo (Propleopus oscillans, one of the Australian megafauna that roamed the continent about 10 to 20 million years ago). Still, if a bald eagle can spread American Imperialism, an awesome eagle could probably do a lot for New Zealand’s influence. Which is a one reason that Haast’s Eagle would be a great candidate for resurrection – which we’ll have the technology to do one day soon so long as there’s a good complete sample of the bird’s DNA, and another species of eagle that could act as a surrogate mother. Haast’s eagle: awesome. Science: even awesomer.

See a cool BBC clip of a Haast’s Eagle attacking a child here

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Comments (3)

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  1. HELENAROCKS says:

    Cool

  2. Hm – “HELENAROCKS” eh? Are you, HELENAROCKS, in fact my sister-in-law Helena?

  3. Guy Armpitthong says:

    Hi Anna, that was a cool article, stuff that’s cool is cool. I had this scary storybook as a kid called Hatupatu And The Birdwoman, now I know what it was about, I mean what it was based on, I already figured out what it was about when I read it. Wicked man

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