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Haast’s Eagle… the Man-Eating Monster

A rather wise chap once said ‘seek the wisdom of the ages, but look at the world through the eyes of a child.’ Here at the Proceedings we don’t advise such behaviour… for a start off they would be far too small. Though we would certainly encourage you to never grow up in the first place, and to look at this wonderful world with the shock and delight of a wee one. Of course one way that early man could be shocked, though rather less delighted, by the joys of this planet would be to have been torn limb from limb by a Haast’s eagle.

At about the same time as Columbus announced that he had found something interesting across the sea… completely oblivious to the great Viking Leif Ericsson wandering around the Americas five hundred years previously… and it already being full of people in the first blinking place. The Haast’s eagle was happily tucking into its own natives in New Zealand. Yes, quite… a man-eating eagle. The bugger would come screaming in at about fifty miles per hour, and though they were relatively light compared to a man it has been estimated the force with which they would hit you would be similar to being walloped by a large building brick dropped from the top of a tower block. Of course being hit by a large building brick dropped from the top of a tower block would in fact be a pleasant experience compared to being preyed upon by a Haast’s eagle. Building blocks dropping of tower blocks wouldn’t be hitting you with talons the size of a kitchen knife for starters, neither would they proceed to deliver a fatal blow with their other leg, before disembowelling you with its bugger off beak.

Thankfully humans weren’t its favourite grub, it was rather partial to the moa; a huge flightless bird. Obviously to take down huge flightless birds, and indeed the odd Polynesian chappy, the Haast’s eagle needed to be huge, which was handy because it was. It was about 40% bigger than the biggest eagles around today; the steller sea eagle and indeed the golden eagle. Though they didn’t appear much bigger, their wingspan being quite similar, just under three metres helping it to dart among the dense forests of New Zealand. It was this rather limited menu that was to be his downfall, as the Maori were also quite partial to the Moa and ate it out of extinction, other prey had evolved to rather sensibly stay well clear of enormous birds that could hit you with the ferocity of masonry hoiked off buildings. What’s more, being rather rowdy types, that man chap didn’t like being eaten by Haast’s eagles and… well… killed a few back. The Haast’s eagle went extinct sometime in the 15th Century.

Julius von Haast: A boy at heart... and quite possibly a badger in beard

Finally we’d like to take time out to give a quick remembrance to a dear friend of The Proceedings; Johann Franz Julius Haast. He did many splendid things in New Zealand, not least of which was his studies of the remains of an amazing eagle. He discovered all sorts about the islands he loved and lived in, and New Zealanders have named all sorts of things after him; rivers, towns, glaciers, rocks, passes, glaciers not to mention a rather big bird. Though perhaps a greater epitaph would be from his friend the eminent anthropologist John Macmillan Brown who put it rather delightfully “he was a boy in heart until the day he died”.


  1. Aww… I wish I could write like this! Just love it, being a fan of the griffin types anyway.
    Can’t wait for more, all the best!

  2. Brooke Hannah says

    I am from the land of birds where these creatures once lived and I have seen one with my own eyes alive and well yet he is hurt who knows how long he has lived but every week he comes to my garden to rest his wing is broken in one place and yet he still manages to get enough lift to not be seen

    He is deadly yes but is sweet and quite tame I love your view on his ancestors but he is different

  3. admin says

    New Zealand?
    Did they eat all the full stops and commas?
    Why don’t you take a photo of him and bob it over m’dear?

  4. Wonderful,

    The other thing about Haast’s eagle is that their closest relatives, the Australian “little eagle” and “booted eagle” both weigh a good deal less than a kilogram.

    So, Haast’s eagle likely go 10x bigger than its ancestors over a million years or so, which is among the fastest evolutionary rates you’ll find.

    There are also M?ori traditions about a giant killer bird, but, wonderfully, they might be an amalgam of the mega-eagle and a drab little snipe with one hell of a voice.

  5. admin says

    Indeed Sir!
    … but I’m intrigued by what you mean by one of the ‘fastest evolutionary rates’?

  6. Well,

    If we presume the ancestors of the Haast’s eagle were about the size of their Australian cousins when they made it to our shores, and they grew to the behemoths they became in only a million years (that’s the special evolutionary biologist’s version of “only” there) then rate at which the Haast’s eagle lineage piled on the pounds is among the fastest sustained evolutionary transformations that we know about.

    Of course, we only have a scant record of most of life’s transformations, since so few of the strange animals that have ever existed left any trace of themselves, but it’s still something to lay claim to.

  7. admin says

    Interesting stuff!

    Though how do we measure evolutionary ‘change’? I’m no particular expert in this particular area, but how do you compare the change in something that ‘got bigger’ to a structure that became vestigial, or even to a structure that simply changed?

    Again not being facetious, it’s a genuine gap in my very gappy knowledge!

    Indeed we may have a scant record when looking at every single species that ever lived, but let’s not fuel ammunition that we don’t have a very full fossil record showing adaptive change across many families!

  8. Well, the real answer you can’t.

    JBS Haldane proposed the “Darwin” as the measure of evolution (scary looking maths, but it equates to something growing or shrinking e times in a million years). You can apply that to most morphological traits (maybe tracking a whale’s hind-limb disappearing, or snail shells getting thicker in response to crab pincers).

    But as you say, how could you compare that to the rate at which a limb becomes a flipper, or at which animals respond to pathogens? There might even be a lessen in there: that most evolution is tweaking a pretty good basic recipe rather than driving ever onward in some direction or other.

    We can compare evolutionary rates at the molecular level, and even find families of genes that are more likely to be targets of natural selection. But those genes (immune response, odour receptors…) are almost always associated with short-term environmental change, a little different than the eagle story.

    (and yes, certainly wouldn’t want to give aid and comfort to those that would deny the masses of evidence for evolution in the rocks!)

  9. admin says

    Just didn’t want this discussion to go off track, there have been plenty of noodles posting recently, yourself of course not included!

    Interesting stuff, yes I vaguely remember a lecture about this, so is Haldane’s rate of evolution theory still widely accepted? I know he was a brilliant man, but some of his other works are considered dated.

    Of course evolution is using the same blueprint; bat’s wing equates to a whale flipper and all that. Never really though of it in terms of size though, all the bones are doing is getting bigger and smaller to make something new… simple and elegant…

    Both evolution and thinking!


  10. Yeah, maybe one of the things that stands out about Haast’s equal was that it was a sustained change mainly just to do with size (although, as you note, it had to keep its wings down a size that it could get in and out of the bush).

    I’m not sure about the how much the Darwin is used these days, I gather a few paleontological types us it, but I’m not the least bit paleontological so I wouldn’t know. More generally, I think the feeling is evolution is more about fits and starts and fluctuations than Haldane’s generation realised, but I wouldn’t want to speak for an entire field!

    I had noticed a noodle or two, the price of fame and a shiny new website I’m sure!

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