Haast’s eagle attacking moa birds. Illustration by John Megahan via PLOS Biology.

Hundreds of years ago, a massive predatory bird soared through the skies and struck terror into the hearts of the first humans to arrive in New Zealand, the Maori.

This fear is reflected in the Maori legend of Poukai, an enormous man-eating bird. Known to scientists as Haast’s eagle (Harpagornis moorei), the terrifying — and very real — bird went extinct in the 1400s.

When Haast’s eagles ruled New Zealand, they were the country’s apex terrestrial predator and the largest raptorial birds in the world. Females were the biggest and weighed over 31 pounds, grew to almost 5 feet in length, and stood nearly 3 feet tall. In fact, they were 40 percent larger than the largest living eagles, and their beaks and talons were nearly twice the size of any modern eagle.

Comparison of the huge claws of Harpagornis moorei with those of its close relative the Hieraaetus morphnoides, the “little” eagle. Image: Bunce M, Szulkin M, Lerner HRL, Barnes I, Shapiro B, et al via PLOS Biology

These giant raptors had a wingspan of 9.8 ft, which was quite small for their overall size, but their muscular bodies and legs more than made up for it.

While Haast’s eagles may seem overqualified for a predator on an island with no native terrestrial mammals other than tiny bats, they actually shared habitat with equally enormous (but non-predatory) birds called moa. Moa were flightless birds, not unlike ostriches and emus, that which weighed over 440 pounds.

Even though moa were fifteen times the size of a Haast’s eagle, they were the eagle’s primary food source and allowed the eagles to grow to their incredible size.

Haast's eagle sculpture near Macres Flat in New Zealand. Photo by Mattinbgn.
Haast’s eagle sculpture near Macres Flat, New Zealand. Photo by Mattinbgn.

Because of the Haast’s eagle’s size and strength, it may have attacked humans, inspiring the Maori legends. It certainly was capable of taking a person down. The average adult human is less than half the size of an adult moa, and a human child would probably have been a mere snack.

However, without any confirmed records of Haast’s eagle attacks prior to its extinction, we’ll never know for sure.

Unfortunately, despite instilling fear in the Maori settlers, the Haast’s eagle would eventually give way to New Zealand’s new apex predators: humans. With weapons and tools, the Maori hunted all of the moa species to extinction, leaving the Haast’s eagles without their primary food sources. As a result, approximately 100 years after humans arrived in New Zealand, both the moa and the Haast’s eagle disappeared forever.

While man-eating eagles no longer exist, modern eagles are still formidable predators capable of snatching large prey.