Haast's Eagle was first classified by Julius von Haast in the 1870s, who named it Harpagornis moorei after George Henry Moore, the owner of the Glenmark Estate where bones of the bird had been found.
The genus name is a compound crassis word of the Greek word "harpax", meaning 'grappling hook', and the Greek "ornis", meaning 'bird'.
Short wings may have aided Haast's Eagles when hunting in the dense scrubland and forests of New Zealand. Haast's Eagle sometimes is portrayed incorrectly as having evolved toward flightlessness, but this is not so; rather it represents a departure from the mode of its ancestors' soaring flight, toward higher wing loading. Two of the largest extant eagles, the Harpy Eagle and the Philippine Eagle, also have similarly reduced relative wing-length in adaptation to forest-dwelling.
The strong legs and massive flight muscles of these eagles would have enabled the birds to take off with a jumping start from the ground, despite their great weight. The tail was almost certainly long, up to 50 cm (20 inches) in female specimens, and very broad. This characteristic would compensate for the reduction in wing area by providing additional lift. Total length is estimated to have been up to 1.4 m (4 ft 7 in) in females, with a standing height of approximately 90 cm (2 ft 11 in) tall or perhaps slightly greater.
Haast's Eagles preyed on large, flightless bird species, including the moa, which was up to fifteen times the weight of the eagle. It is estimated to have attacked at speeds up to 80 km/h (50 mph), often seizing its prey's pelvis with the talons of one foot and killing with a blow to the head or neck with the other. Its size and weight indicate a bodily striking force equivalent to a cinder block falling from the top of an eight-story building. Its large beak also could be used to rip into the internal organs of its prey and death then would have been caused by blood loss. In the absence of other large predators or scavengers, a Haast's Eagle easily could have monopolised a single large kill over a number of days.
It is believed that these birds are described in many legends of the Māori, under the names Pouakai, Hokioi, or Hakawai. However, it has been ascertained that the "Hakawai" and "Hokioi" legends refer to the Coenocorypha snipe – in particular the extinct South Island subspecies. According to an account given to Sir George Grey, an early governor of New Zealand, Hokioi were huge black-and-white predators with a red crest and yellow-green tinged wingtips. In some Māori legends, Pouakai kill humans, which scientists believe could have been possible if the name relates to the eagle, given the massive size and strength of the bird.
Early human settlers in New Zealand (the Māori arrived around the year 1280) preyed heavily on large flightless birds, including all moa species, eventually hunting them to extinction. The loss of its natural prey caused the Haast's Eagle to become extinct as well around the year 1400, when the last of its natural food sources were depleted.
A noted explorer, Charles Edward Douglas, claims in his journals that he had an encounter with two raptors of immense size in Landsborough River valley (probably during the 1870s), and that he shot and ate them. These birds might have been a last remnant of the species, but some might argue that there had not been suitable prey for a population of Haast's Eagle to maintain itself for about five hundred years before that date, and 19th century Māori lore was adamant that the pouakai was a bird not seen in living memory. Still, Douglas' observations on wildlife generally are trustworthy; a more probable explanation, given that the alleged three-metre wingspan described by Douglas is likely to have been a rough estimate, is that the birds were Eyles' Harriers. This was the largest known harrier (the size of a small eagle) — and a generalist predator — and although it also is assumed to have become extinct in prehistoric times, its dietary habits alone make it a more likely candidate for late survival.
Until recent human colonisation that introduced rodents and cats, the only mammals found on the islands of New Zealand were three species of bat, one of which recently has become extinct. Free from terrestrial mammalian competition and predatory threat, birds occupied or dominated all major niches in the New Zealand animal ecology because there were no threats to their eggs and chicks by small terrestrial animals. Moa were grazers, functionally similar to deer or cattle in other habitats, and Haast's Eagles were the hunters who filled the same niche as top-niche mammalian predators, such as tigers or lions.