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The work contained on the following pages is the property and J.L. Cordell and is used on Candlekeep with permission. All images and text remains the property of the owner.

On Harpies

By J.L. Cordell

On Harpies, by Eriaeskalor, vermeil dragon and aspiring scholar

It came to my attention some time ago that very little information has been compiled regarding harpies, and some of what does exist is slightly misleading, though for perfectly understandable reasons.  Having the honor of knowing in person a civilized harpy (though he would call that an oxymoron) was key both in alerting me to this dearth and in helping me remedy it; he even reluctantly posed for my painting.  Various other individuals of different races have also aided in the field collection of information not personally known by my friend, while most of the historical research has been my own.

Harpy Male

A male harpy obligingly showing his colors.  The dorsal side of the wings is the same muddy color as the harpy's back, except for more of the red, yellow, and black spots.

Harpies are about three feet from nose to base of tail, being similar in size and shape to humans, though with shorter, almost lizardlike legs. Because of their hollow, birdlike bones and high ratio of tendon to muscle fiber, they average only ninety to one hundred pounds, with males slightly larger and heavier than females.  With a running speed of only nine miles an hour, they can be outrun by a human, but in the air they can reach speeds of over thirty-six miles per hour.  Some harpies have been said to be able to outfly a galloping horse, and their aerial agility is such that they could certainly outmaneuver it even in its panicked state.

Most of a harpy's body is covered in small, round, non-overlapping scales, but its face and neck are bare like a vulture's.  The skin here is tough and leathery and no more vulnerable than the scaly hide.  Because of its thickness and need for mobility, the facial skin is deeply crinkled in adults, giving harpies an "aged" look by human standards, especially in combination with the sharp facial features and large, beaklike nose.

Harpy Skin

A close-up depiction of a harpy's scaly hide.

Harpies are warm-blooded egg-layers with scales, some bristly hair, and mammary glands.  They do not sweat or pant to regulate body temperature; any excess heat in an adult is shed through the tough, stretchy wing membrane, where tiny capillaries branch everywhere.  A harpy overheated by exertion will unfold its wings and slowly fan them back and forth with small motions, sending a constant breeze across their hot surface to cool the blood flowing through them.  A dip in shallow water helps the process.  Fortunately for harpies--and unfortunately for anything that tries to fight them--the dense capillaries in their wings very quickly close off when severed to prevent bloodloss.  Otherwise, the huge, blood-filled sails of their wings would make excellent targets.

Though they reach maturity at a much earlier age than humans, harpies may live a very long time; one female captured at the onset of maturity is documented as having lived thirty-six more years before dying in an attempt at escape.  Her physical abilities and her drive toward freedom were undiminished by time, and she looked no older on her last day in captivity than on her first, except for slightly deeper creases on her face.  In the wild, it is assumed that harpies do not live nearly this long, but rather die in combat with each other or with the monsters and humanoid travelers they prey upon.

Harpy coloration is a dun muddy-olive to blend with the marsh, lighter on the ventral side and darker on the dorsal, particularly pale on the undersides of the wings.  Their paler portions also have varying degrees of dull orange or ochre shading, including the undersides of the wings, which has led to descriptions and depictions of harpies as being shades of ochre, orange, and even red all over.  This mistake is understandable when one realizes that most people only see harpies in times of panic when under attack by them, and then they mostly see the creature's undersides, especially the flashing wings.  Males also sport vivid red, yellow, and black spots on their wings, reminiscent of a peacock's "eyes," and their lower arms and legs are bright crimson.  The color range of the bare skin on a harpy's face and neck can be compared to the skin tones of Calishites, but with a more olive cast.  Their eyes are always dark, even so black as to make the pupil indistinguishable from the iris.  Their hair is likewise dark, growing to about six inches in length on male or female, and its texture is stiffer than human hair, showing a gloss if clean.  Harpy hair, like harpy bodies, is more often caked with dried blood and marsh mud, however, as they are not the cleanest of creatures in the wild.

A harpy's muscular wingshoulders stand well above its lateral line, lending a strongly hunchbacked appearance when the upper spine is in fact little more bowed than a human's.  The lower spine lacks the recurve of a humanoid back, preventing a harpy from standing straight upright, and its thighs are held almost parallel to the ground like a reptile's when standing at rest.  A harpy forced to walk rather than fly will do so in a forward crouch with a distinctive slithering waddle with its legs angled to the sides instead of under it, using its ponderous, partially-unfurled wings for balance, arms ever ready to act as extra legs if needed.  Harpy tails are too short to be of any assistance in balancing, somewhat resembling the tail of a plucked chicken.

Despite an almost batlike appearance to the wings, harpy flight muscles are more avian than mammalian or draconic.  Instead of short muscles anchored to the spine and dorsal ribs for drawing the wings upward, a harpy has much longer, stronger muscles stretching from the tops of its shoulders down around its ribcage to its keeled sternum.  Laid over these muscles are the thicker muscles between wings and sternum for the powerful downstroke.  This flight musculature makes a harpy's chest appear somewhat larger and deeper in proportion to its body than does a human's chest, and it allows the wingshoulders to be remarkably close together atop the creature so the wings can fold smoothly and comfortably down the harpy's back instead of hanging half-supported off its sides when not in use.  The fingers of a harpy wing also bend double at the joints when folded, like a hand curling into a fist, shortening the length of exposed wing (bats do this as well).

The shells of harpy eggs have a texture like thick, soft leather, pure white in color and of a long oval shape.  Eggs are laid in a shallow pit of moist soil well above the water line and are buried in plants, both rotting and fresh, and peat.  The slow decomposition of the plants in the warm, humid environment keeps the eggs at an acceptable temperature without active incubation.  Cubs hatch out with a high metabolism to maintain their necessary temperature with so little body mass; though their dam nurses them a few times a day to give them specialized nutrients for growth and health, more than half of their diet from the beginning consists of meat brought in and finely shredded by the adults of the flock.  A harpy flock with a full complement of new cubs to feed is a voracious plague on all living creatures within miles of the lair.


Harpy Biology

Harpies inhabit marshy areas from subtropical to the northernmost reaches of temperate zones.  Their normal body temperature is noticably lower than that of a human.  In northern latitudes where winters can be harsh--especially on high moorlands--early winter can be a dangerous time for small villages near harpy territories, and for any caravans that travel through.  As the weather grows colder and more and more animals die off, migrate, or fall into hibernation, harpies become desperate for food.  Their attacks increase exponentially, as does their courage in taking on dangerous creatures, including well-armed caravan guards.  This desperation is due to the fact that they have no means of conserving bodyheat--being warm-blooded but covered in scales rather than fur or feathers and lacking the elemental energy of a dragon--and thus must eat more during the time of year when food is scarcest in order to have the energy to stay warm.

After a few tendays of increasing desperation and violence, local harpies in these areas seem to suddenly disappear around the time of the winter solstice.  In actuality, they retreat to their lairs, where they huddle together and enter a state of hibernation.  In essence, they become temporarily cold-blooded, conserving energy by not bothering to maintain normal body temperature.  A few of the weaker cubs die during this time, but most survive.  The spring thaw brings another dangerous time for local humanoids and their livestock as the harpies emerge from hibernation ravenously hungry, and soon with new carnivorous mouths to feed.

Harpies are capable of surviving for more than a tenday on a diet half meat and half plant without ill effect, but they associate plant-eating with the habits of prey.  They would sooner eat their young and their weak to survive a famine than search out edible plants, assuming they are even aware of their omnivorous options.  For proper digestion and energy, however, they must return to a diet nearly or all carnivorous after a couple tendays of consuming as much plant as meat.

Reproduction among harpies bears similarities to reptiles, birds, and mammals simultaneously.  Harpies have a single external opening--called a cloaca--for all waste materials, copulation, and egg-laying.  The cloaca is similar to a reptile's, shielded by scales so as to hardly show.  Testes are internal, located inside the body cavity near the kidneys, and the penis is fully retracted into the body when not mating, much like a duck's.  Only the left ovary is active on a female, the right being vestigial.  Eggs are developed inside the uterus for some time, nourished by the dam's body, before being laid for incubation.  Female harpies nurse their young, though milk is not the whole of their diet from the beginning.  Mammary glands are notably smaller than commonly depicted, more like the glands on some of the smaller apes, as larger ones without supportive clothing would be painful and even hampering in the active, survivalistic life of a harpy female.

In regions where harpies go to ground for the winter, mating takes place around the spring equinox, during the height of gorging after the difficult sleep.  In warmer areas, harpies mate before the spring equinox, sometimes by as much as fifteen days if prey animals seem to be reproducing well and early.  Harpies of both sexes in capitivity grow restless and somewhat more aggressive during the month or so of what would be mating time in their home region, regardless of local weather, even when kept out of contact with other harpies and natural light sources.

Harpy Pelvix
A harpy's pelvis and lower spine, showing the lack of recurve for standing upright.  Note the paired epipubic bones thrusting forward, also found in the skeletons of such creatures as kangaroos and platypus.

Harpy Psychology

Some scholars have speculated that the legendary cruelty of mature harpies might be connected to the excitement and social resonance generated by the frequent feeding times of cubs.  When very young, they are constantly presented with fresh, mutilated meat, and the more viciously they tear into it, the more enthusiastic the response from the adults, who of course want their young to be strong and vigorous.  As the cubs grow larger and stronger, they are presented with living prey, wounded enough to be caught and killed by the cubs.  If a cub is not able to take down its offered prey, it simply does not eat for a time, and cub metabolism is still very high at this point, providing a driving motivation.  Hesitation or anything resembling compassion is counter to survival, with both hunger and adult scorn--often physical pain from an adult as well--standing as negative reinforcement.  Cubs that are repeatedly unable to catch their crippled prey are counted as weak, substandard, and are allowed to die from neglect.  So perhaps, as adults, harpies are simply subconsciously proving their fitness for survival and group acceptance--even their superiority over both prey and fellow flock mates--when they capture and mutilate hapless travelers for sport.

It is thought that the crimson extremities and wing spots of a male harpy appeal to the females' bloodlust.  Males certainly take advantage of their coloration for enticing females, challenging rivals, and scaring off potential threats to the eggs.  Wings partly-extended and trembling to set the livid spots dancing on the relaxed membrane indicate an attempt at luring a female to mate, while fully-spread wings with cranial hair and bristly dorsal crest raised constitute a threat, displaying the startlingly-bright colors on the undersides of the wings against the muddy greens and browns of the marsh.  The raising of the cranial hair and the short, stiff crest of black hair along the spine without flared wings is a sign of unease, whether irritation or nervousness or growing aggression, though it does not always signify an intent to attack.

Harpies are not known to have any submissive posture.  All observed challenges between them have ended either in a deadly fight or in a frantic retreat, often with pursuit to the edge of the territory.  Even mating involves no submissive behavior on either part; females have been known to drag inexperienced males into position, verbally berating them the entire time and even clawing them if they prove particularly inept.  A young wandering male cornered by a group of unattached females demanding to mate can be in a dangerous situation, because he hasn't had a chance to build his harem one at a time (or to take over an established harem) and thus learn how to manage multiple aggressive females, and he certainly can't meet the demands of all of them as immediately as they want him to.  He will likely finish the day with many painful wounds, although he might gain one or two mates from the ordeal and thus start his harem without having to challenge an alpha male.  Unclaimed territory is rare, however, so the new male will probably still have to fight when the local alpha discovers him.

Only males have been seen giving threat displays; females simply attack with no warning, making free use of their magical song to immobilize prey and draw it close.  Males seem to have more of a desire to impress a rival or a potential threat and set it to fleeing before giving chase, whether to kill or merely to drive off.  We can only speculate on possible reasons for this, as the very few male harpies ever captured have never gotten beyond statements of vile designs on their captors when questioned, and my friend was only able to say in explanation that it "feels right."

In any case, males don't appear to understand the meaning of "bluff," despite the resemblance of their bright wing patterning to the tails of peacocks, birds that can scare off predators but can do little to fight them.  Male harpies will inevitably make every attempt at carrying through on their threats--whether verbal or nonverbal--if given half a chance, although many females have been known to prefer escape and later vengeance over immediate attack.  Perhaps this difference in follow-through is related to a male's usual position as the last defense of the lair, where he must either succeed immediately in his solitary attacks or lose his lair and his life, while females spend most of their time ranging the skies with plenty of opportunity to plan concerted attacks and even to come back later to take a stronger foe by surprise.


Harpy Development and Society

The male sex is a recessive trait in harpy genetics, meaning that three females are hatched for every male, and not all females are capable of producing male offspring.  In addition, a "true" female (one that doesn't carry the recessive male trait) produced by a mated pair is capable of occasionally laying unfertilized eggs to produce all-female offspring, but females produced in this one-parent fashion must mate with a male in order to reproduce at all.  Females laying unfertilized eggs usually band together in a small flock of three to six for mutual care of the eggs and young.

"F" (female) is dominant, "m" (male) is recessive; only the inheritance of two "m" traits produces a male harpy, as shown in the simple charts of possible offpsring from different pairings.  An "FF" female produces only female offspring, whether or not her eggs are fertilized, while half of an "Fm" female's offspring are likely to be male.

Because of harpy genetics and occasional parthenogenesis--in addition to male mortality from territorial disputes and domineering sires--females constitute the vast majority of the species, as can be guessed by the overwhelming depictions of females in all forms of art.  It is estimated that only one adult male exists for every fifteen to twenty adult females, though it is possible this estimation is skewed by the difficulty researchers have in locating lairs and the males that guard them (to say nothing of the difficulty in staying alive to report on their findings afterward).

Once they reach sexual maturity, young males are driven from their sire's territory to make their own way in the world.  Over the next two to four years, they travel widely, mostly on the ground to keep their vivid wing patterns from drawing the attention of older, established males whose territories they inevitably cross.  These wandering males scout out the terrain, take note of food sources, and watch for potential weaknesses in local alpha males.  When they believe they've found a territory worth fighting for and an alpha they have some chance of taking down, they strike.

Battles between males are one-on-one affairs, regardless of how many females might be nearby.  Females have no care for the identity of their breeder, only for the fact that he's the strongest and most vicious male in the area, traits proven by overcoming any other males he might encounter (and preferably making their deaths long and entertaining in order to demonstrate unquestionable dominance).  Groups of females have been known to locate wandering males and "kidnap" them, snatching and carrying them to their lair to face their current alpha in a fight to the death for breeding priviledges.  This occasionally results in a change in the local gene pool, but more often it merely kills more of the already-scarce males by dropping them into a confrontation they would never have chosen.

When a change of alpha male does take place, the new alpha kills all the cubs of the old one that he can get hold of, as well as any older but not yet mature males in the lair.  Females who want to save their small cubs or their immature male offspring must leave with them, to finish raising them alone and unprotected by the flock.  More often they allow the slaughter and even participate in it, because the death of their young launches them into heat again and they want to produce new offspring with this male who is obviously stronger than the last.

While his harem of two to eight adult females (and as many as six immature ones of adult size) ranges about in search of food, the alpha male remains near the lair, which is simply the location of the egg mounds on a piece of grassy ground high enough not to flood.  He keeps the area immediately surrounding the egg mounds clear of refuse in order to protect the eggs from the mold or vermin that could kill them, and sometimes carries water to the mounds (usually in a helmet or pot from previous humanoid prey) to keep them at optimum moisture under the sun.  He also scouts the environs from the air--rarely leaving sight of the lair for more than a few moments--for additional females for his harem, rival males, and potential threats to the eggs.

While scouting or sitting and guarding the eggs, he occasionally breaks into non-magical, wordless song, apparently claiming his territory and dominance and calling out to females who might join his harem, much like a songbird's or rooster's vocalizations.  This primal song is said by the few who've heard it to be one of the most beautiful, haunting sounds they have ever experienced, at once thrilling and deeply disturbing, rolling across the endless expanse of the marsh in both invitation and challenge.  Travelers who are close enough to the lair to hear the song most likely have a nasty battle in store as soon as their party is noticed.

A female's one to two eggs are laid about fifteen days days after mating.  The eggs are small (around eight inches long and perhaps twenty-four ounces), and their soft shells allow them to be laid more easily than their size in relation to the dam would imply.  They incubate in their mound for about thirty days (depending on the temperature maintained inside the mound) before the tiny hatchlings claw their way out, squawking with hunger.  The sire is always present to hear the sounds and help the hatchlings emerge from the mound, and often the dam is there as well, knowing when her young will hatch because she automatically begins lactating at this time.  A mother will nurse only her own cubs, but the entire harem works together to acquire enough meat for cubs and adults.  Eggs hatch in the last tenday of Tarsakh or the first tenday of Mirtul (earlier in warmer climes, later in cooler), when the air and ground are warm enough to help the small cubs regulate their body temperature until they develop more mass, and when most animals have young of their own that make for a larger selection of prey.

Newly-hatched cubs have thin hide, small teeth, short limbs, and stubby wings, and their eyes don't open until a day or so after hatching.  They begin crawling awkwardly on four limbs as soon as their eyes open, and at least one female is almost always present to help the male keep them from wandering if they get beyond the low wall of earth and detritus he builds.

Cubs nurse and eat finely-shredded meat for the first seven months of their life.  They eat ravenously and grow quickly during this time, increasing from about one pound at hatching to nearly fifteen pounds by the time they are weaned.  They are capable of limited flight somewhat before weaning, and frequently engage in mock-combat on the ground and in the air, though their aerial attempts most often result in wet crashes on the spongy surface of the marsh.

When their muscles are strong enough--around four months of age--the cubs are presented with weak creatures such as rabbits, ground birds, large lizards, nonvenomous snakes, and even small humanoid children if the harem can find them.  The creatures are all wounded by the adults so that they cannot effectively escape or fight back, though a bit of a chase or struggle is desirable for the education of the cubs.  Larger and larger prey is offered over time, until cubs of nearly adult size may receive humanoid adults to play with, complete with simple weapons and some armor for the cubs to test themselves against.

Harpy cubs learn early through experience how to handle a large bone as a club and how to use their claws, flight, and magical song effectively.  They prove their fitness by catching and killing the offered creatures, and they prove their superior prowess as hunters by being able to contain and control their terrified prey while killing it slowly in agonizing increments rather than going the easier route of a quick kill-and-consume.  It has been shown that even a harpy long into adulthood will be roused to hunger and great intensity by sight or sound of a frightened creature in pain, as a half-starved dog will be roused by the smell of chicken bones from someone's back door.  Tests on captive harpies have shown that the sight of a fleeing creature has the greatest effect by far, causing the harpy to leap and strain against all bonds in its overpowering urge to give chase.

Harpies become sexually mature at six years of age, having reached gangly adult size about two and a half years previously.  In the time between attaining full growth and reaching maturity, female juveniles hunt with the harem and the few males stay home with their sire in a rather nervous relationship, helping guard the lair and learning from their sire.  The alpha male makes certain his absolute dominance is obvious at every turn, and may kill a juvenile male who fails to show proper obeisance when confronted.  He wants his offspring to grow up strong and be dominant in their future social circles, however, and he spends a good amount of time in seeming play with the young males.  Their wrestling and mock-fighting hardens them and sharpens their skills and perceptions for the day they'll challenge an established male for rights to his harem.

The alpha is determined not to be the one his male offspring challenge.  He drives them from the lair when they develop their striking coloration on limbs and wings and begin to instinctively fan their wings at the females.  The harem drives them all the way from the territory because they're obviously not yet ready to face their sire in a battle for dominance.  A wandering young adult male is a loner, and he will avoid or attack any other wandering male he encounters.

Young females occasionally stay past juvenile age and become a part of their sire's harem, but more often strike out on their own in hopes of finding an even stronger male whose harem they can join.  While young males always travel singly when driven from the lair, regardless of how many there may have been, females often stay in groups of two or more, the better to catch prey and defend against attacks.

A harpy harem may contain as many as twelve females, though numbers so large are likely to cause deadly friction.  This is not a permanent "family," but rather a collection of females who all believe this one male to be the best breeder they can find for their current breeding cycle, or perhaps they believe his territory to offer the best selection of prey.  A breeding cycle is completed in three years, when a female's current cub or cubs have reached an age where they have slowed in their growth and their eating, and their hides are as armored as an adult's.  At this time she usually mates with the same male, as he's the most available while she finishes rearing her current offspring in the safety of the lair.  On rare occasions, a female might refuse to mate again until she and her young can move to another territory and harem.

As there is no inherent difference in strength or stamina between male and female harpies, unwanted copulation would be rare enough even without the greater experience females generally have with hunting and combat.  Add to that the fact that a female in heat who encounters a male in good health will be very likely to deliberately invite his attentions, and we have a society in which males are technically dominant due to their rarity and their value as breeders and nest-keepers but females are unequivocably in charge of reproduction.  The male may fan his wings to catch her eye, but the decision lies with her.  Rare is the female in heat who will refuse the advances of a male who decides to be proactive, however.

Regardless of circumstance, neither participant in the copulation will mate and leave; reproductive instincts are solid in harpies, if only for the sake of raising strong offspring.  A wandering male who happens across another male's harem female in heat and mates with her without challenging the alpha will settle down and guard the lair the two of them have created, despite the fact that doing so will eventually bring him into conflict with the local alpha male when he discovers the intruder in his territory.


Harpy Tradition?

It is difficult in the extreme to determine what may be mere instinct and what actual tradition in a creature that is fairly intelligent but also highly animalic.  The closest phenomenon researchers have found to indisputable tradition among harpies is their oral recitations.  For creatures that live in the wilderness and have no craft, religion, or form of government aside from sheer strength and viciousness, they have an astounding oral heritage, with repertoires passed down through many generations and traded among individuals.

Historical facts and geneology are of no interest to harpies in their recitation.  They focus on epic lays and structured poetry, things to move the heart of a humanoid audience, though harpies themselves seem unmoved by their recitations beyond memorized inflection.  Their reasons for this are perhaps even more mysterious than the reasons behind dragons' hoarding of treasure, as draconic pride can gloat over possession of things other creatures want, and at least dragons can eat their treasure.  Harpies seem to learn and recite their repertoire much as songbirds learn their songs, by rote memorization of not only words but also tone, inflection, and meter.  This is the single known aspect of harpy behavior not tied to survival and social position, though it is possible that individuals who recite better or have a larger repertoire might enjoy some kind of status or priviledge.  Overall, the memorization and recitation appear almost mindless, even reflexive in a sense, leading some scholars to disagree with the categorization of this behavior as tradition rather than instinct.

There is one situation in which potential survival benefit to skilled orators can clearly be seen.  Captive harpies, upon realizing their inability to free themselves through strength, magic, or threats, have been known to resort to the most poignant deliveries of poetry in their rich, expressive voices, as if to win their freedom by pleasing--or at least deeply moving--their captors.  They have an uncanny ability to choose just the right poems and tales to deliver for maximum impact on a particular audience.  These attempts have even left clinically-minded researchers wiping tears from their eyes and questioning the rightness of holding in a cage any creature who can speak of love and loss, evil and justice and mercy, with such beauty and feeling.

The one documented occurrence of a heartsick young assistant attempting to free the harpy who had beguiled her resulted in a very bloody death.  The harpy made her exit through the window as help for the woman arrived, but she had already consumed half of the still-living woman's entrails.  She tore out the woman's throat on her way to the window, and left spitting curses at being driven from the remainder of her meal.

For all their love of violence and pain, harpies seem also to love words that evoke the nobler humanoid emotions, presumably picked up whenever they can trick a humanoid captive into teaching them something new with the false promise of release.  Perhaps they study these poems and stories in their own primitive way in hopes of learning how better to torment their captive prey by attacking the heart as well as the body.  Or perhaps there is something perverse deep within them that reaches toward that which they can never experience in their society, which they view as weakness and pride themselves on never feeling.  My harpy friend flatly refuses to comment.  We can only conjecture.

Author's Disclaimer:
Article and images by J. L. Cordell in November of 2007
For the sake of courtesy, please don't reproduce this article or the included pictures without mentioning the author/artist's name and  The Forgotten Realms and the names of months in the setting are copyrighted by Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro; the general concept of harpies is real-world mythological, but the specific creature detailed in the Monster Manual also belongs to WOTC/Hasbro.  The use of the terms here is for the sake of completion and is not meant to infringe upon the copyrights of the above mentioned parties.  This article is for non-profit purposes in homage to an excellent game and campaign setting, and no association with or endorsement from Wizards of the Coast or Hasbro is implied.

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