In early 1833, during the voyage of the HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin found himself in a corner of the world he didn’t particularly care for, an archipelago near the southern tip of South America called the Falkland Islands, whose windswept moorlands he described as “desolate and wretched.” The local birdlife didn’t help matters. An unusual species of falcon seemed to derive pleasure from tormenting him and the ship’s crew. “A large black glazed hat was carried nearly a mile, as was a pair of the heavy balls used in catching cattle,” Darwin wrote of the avian thieves, “and a small Kater’s compass in a red morocco leather case, which was never recovered.” Crew members complained about the birds’ “boldness and rapacity,” and a lookout was posted to prevent them from picking apart the ship’s rigging. Whalers who had visited the Falklands previously had likewise cursed the creatures as “flying devils” and “flying monkeys,” although science would ultimately settle on the name striated caracara, or, informally, Johnny rook.
Darwin was both repulsed and intrigued by this prankster, which resembles a cross between a hawk and a raven, with an orange face, glossy black plumage, and the ability to run with the speed and agility of a pheasant. Although he called them “false eagles” who “ill become so high a rank,” he couldn’t ignore their strange alertness, sociability, and curiosity. In The Voyage of the Beagle, he wrote more about Johnny rooks and their shenanigans than any other bird. Why, the great naturalist wondered, was such a seemingly intelligent species scratching out an existence in this tiny, remote range at the bottom of the planet? Ultimately, however, he set this question aside and never returned to it.
Now, nearly two centuries later, Jonathan Meiburg has taken up the obscure task of answering Darwin’s question in A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey. Although Meiburg, up to this point, has made his mark not as an ornithologist but as a Texas-based indie-rock musician of some note, the name of his band (Shearwater) and the titles of some of its albums (The Winged Life, Rook, Animal Joy) suggest that birds are never far from his thoughts. He first met striated caracaras 25 years ago during a postcollege Thomas J. Watson Fellowship that sent him around the globe to study daily life in remote societies, and while in the Falklands, the birds gave him the full-on Darwin experience. They stole his cap, tugged the zippers of his backpack, and looked right through him in a manner both knowing and unnerving. The experience prompted Meiburg to get a master’s degree in geography, with a thesis titled “The Biogeography of Striated Caracaras (Phalcoboenus australis),” and he remains smitten to this day. “Calling them odd birds of prey,” he writes, “feels like calling the painters of the Italian Renaissance a group of unusually gifted apes.”
Early in the book, we come to know a striated caracara named Tina, who is a resident of a falconry center in England. Tina’s keeper, Geoff, shuffles three shells on a table in a bid to confuse the bird, but Tina always picks the one concealing a treat beneath. When Geoff asks for a particular colored ball from a tub of balls, she always retrieves the right one. Her enthusiasm for playing, solving problems, and wanting to know more is off the charts. In the world of raptors, this is unheard of. Most birds of prey, like peregrine falcons—one of the most widespread birds on earth, residing on six continents—are designed for one thing: hunting. Johnny rooks, like us, appear designed for thinking. And yet only a couple thousand remain on the planet, living on a handful of subantarctic islands that, due to sea-level rise, may soon disappear. This vexes Meiburg, whose subsequent quest for answers produces a lively mashup of evolutionary biology, travelogue, and biography, ushering us on an eye-opening romp through time and space. Meiburg journeys back millions of years to consider plate tectonics, mass extinctions, sea-level change, glacial movement, and the rise and fall of species.
Woven into this account is a 19th-century British naturalist who was equally captivated by the bird. William Henry Hudson was one of the first people, Meiburg notes, “to write a kind word about caracaras.” Hudson grew up on the Argentinean Pampas alongside a type of caracara called the chimango, and he admired them. They hunted when hunting made sense, scavenged when scavenging made sense, and otherwise explored, investigated, and took risks. Hudson, a lonely soul, also shared their outcast status. He’d moved to England seeking like-minded bird lovers, and while his books were praised by luminaries like Ezra Pound and Virginia Woolf, noted ornithologists like John Gould, who cataloged Darwin’s specimens, snubbed him as an uncredentialed amateur.
As science had shunned Hudson, so it shunned the caracara branch of family Falconidae. Ornithologists have referred to them as “aberrant falcons” and “a rather unimpressive lot,” with Falconidae’s so-called true falcons—including peregrines—hogging all the research. But the upshot of Meiburg’s sleuthing is that falcons are less related to other raptors than they are to a bird famous for its chatty intelligence: parrots. Those two share a common ancestor that survived the asteroid-triggered Cretaceous extinction by occupying then forested Antarctica. A land bridge subsequently allowed falcons to migrate to South America, where 64 species evolved, including ten types of caracara. (Parrots, meanwhile, likely took another land bridge, to Australasia.) When North and South America joined up five million years ago, peregrines and other falcons migrated north, while the lineage that produced striated caracaras never left South America, meandering the length and width of the continent before ending up back where they started, near the bottom of Argentina, on the doorstep of Antarctica. Meiburg schleps across the continent himself to trace this lineage and learn what he can from the Johnny rook’s caracara cousins currently dwelling in Guyanese jungles, altiplano deserts, and remote Andean valleys.
“Calling them odd birds of prey,” he writes, “feels like calling the painters of the Italian Renaissance a group of unusually gifted apes.”
The book is most compelling with Meiburg on the ground in these difficult places, discovering consistently fascinating caracara behavior. Deep in the rainforest of Guyana, he finds red-throated caracaras who survive primarily by eating wasp larva. The birds have deduced that if they dive-bomb wasp nests as aggressively as possible, the shocked residents will choose flight over fight. In the Chilean altiplano above 12,000 feet, Meiburg spends one of the coldest nights of his life in a sleeping bag on the edge of a salt lagoon, staking out mountain caracaras known for working in groups to flip over heavy flat stones in search of edible creatures.
Meiburg’s goals are ambitious. In trying to pin down exactly why a single species occupies a particular range on earth, he explores an unwieldy assortment of planetary forces spanning eons, and if that isn’t enough, he throws in a biography of Hudson to boot. It’s a lot. He mostly keeps the narrative moving, although now and again he lingers too long in spots. We might not need the level of detail on Hudson’s novel Green Mansions, for example, or the blow-by-blow account of Sir Walter Raleigh’s efforts to find El Dorado in southern Guyana. He more than makes up for it, though, with consistently evocative writing, as in this delightful passage about a pair of sun bitterns one morning on the banks of the Rewa: “Their song was equally beautiful and odd: a set of hollow notes that ascended by quarter tones, so airy and diffuse that they seemed to come from everywhere. As the sun broke through the canopy, they were joined by a bird I couldn’t place, singing a descending countermelody in the same octave—then another, whose sparkling seven-note song was like a peal of tiny bells.” In moments like this one, Meiburg brings his deep musical knowledge to bear.
In the end, we find out that the polar vortex has kept striated caracaras pinned down in the Falklands and on a couple of nearby islands off Tierra del Fuego. They will remain stranded, Meiburg notes sadly, until some combination of ocean pollution, overfishing, and sea-level rise erases them forever. But that doesn’t keep him from dreaming of creative interventions. If peregrines can colonize dense urban centers, why not Johnny rooks? Meiburg imagines translocating some to Hyde Park in London and then letting them do their thing. Hell, they’re smarter than pigeons, and pigeons know how to use the Underground. “It’s not hard to imagine Johnny rooks following suit, running under turnstiles of the Circle Line at Paddington Station and riding out to Hampstead Heath, then returning home to roost at night,” Meiburg muses. We’re talking, after all, about a lineage of birds that successfully stole from Darwin, determined how to eat wasps without getting stung, and can organize a community rock-flipping to find dinner. London would be a piece of cake.
Lead Illustration: Biodiversity Heritage Library/Public Domain