Haast Eagle or Poukai (Harpagornis moorei)

The life size replica suspended from the ceiling in McGregor room 1 depicts the world’s largest known Eagle. If moas can be considered the avian equivalent of deer, then this was the tiger. It weighed up to 13kg, and even for its size, had proportionately massive claws. The wings appear to have been somewhat shortened, an adaptation also seen in extant eagles living in a forest environment, such as the South American harpy eagle.

Much debate has centred on whether the great eagle was a predator or a scavenger, and whether it flew well, or was principally a ground dweller. The view that it was a scavenger is based on the skull, which is unusually large for an eagle but very similar to that of a vulture, and the fact that its remains are usually found in association with those of moas which have become trapped in swamps or potholes. However, the skull of a vulture is adapted for feeding on large animals, as this eagle did if it hunted moas, while this association of its remains with those of trapped animals probably reflects no more than the tendency of every predator to take advantage of easy prey. Furthermore, it has been pointed out that large scavengers need large predators to supply their needs. Finally, scavengers must be able to hunt with little expenditure of energy, as vultures do by soaring on thermals, but the great eagle could fly only by energy-consuming flapping flight.

The suggestion that it may have been chiefly a ground dweller is based on the supposed shortness of the wings, and the unusual strength and power of the legs. However, the wings were of typical length for a forest eagle, while the strong legs were probably necessary when taking flight since eagle’s spring into the air rather than running into the wind as vultures do. In dense forest near vertical take-offs would often have been necessary.

In all probability the great eagle perched high in the trees, and hurtled down on suitable prey when it passed below. When the Maori arrived, it probably became the world’s only man eating bird (Maori legend certainly suggests this), and thus owes its extinction not only to the destruction of prey species but also to active hunting  by Maori trying to make the forests safe.