In early 1833, during the voyage of HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin found himself in a corner of the world that was not particularly important to him, an archipelago near the southern tip of South America, the Falkland Islands, whose windswept moorlands he described as “desolate and wretched.” The local bird life was of no avail. An unusual species of falcon seemed to enjoy tormenting him and the ship’s crew. “A large black glazed hat was worn for nearly a mile, as were a pair of the heavy balls used to catch cattle,” wrote Darwin of the bird thieves, “and a small hangover compass in a red Morocco leather pouch that The crew members complained about the birds’ “audacity and rape” and a lookout was installed to prevent them from dismantling the ship’s rigging. Whalers who had previously visited the Falkland Islands had the creatures also cursed as “flying devils” and “flying monkeys”, although science would ultimately settle on the name striped Caracara or informally Johnny Rook.
Darwin was both repulsed and intrigued by this joke article, which resembles a cross between a hawk and a raven, with an orange face, glossy black plumage, and the ability to run at the speed and agility of a pheasant. Although he called them “false eagles” who “attain such a high rank,” he could not ignore their strange vigilance, 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, did such an intelligent species scratch out an existence in this tiny, remote area at the bottom of the planet? Ultimately, however, he put that question aside and never came back to it.
(Photo: Courtesy Penguin Random House)
Now, nearly two centuries later, Jonathan Meiburg has taken on the obscure task of answering Darwin’s question in A Most Notable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey. Although Meiburg has made a name for himself not as an ornithologist, but as an indie rock musician from Texas, the name of his band (Shearwater) and the titles of some of their albums (The Winged Life), Rook, Animal Joy) suggests that birds are never far from his thoughts. 25 years ago he met striped Caracaras during a postcollege scholarship from Thomas J. Watson who sent him around the globe to study daily life in remote societies and while he was in the Falkland Islands the birds gave him the extensive Darwin experience. They stole his hat, pulled the zippers of his backpack and looked knowingly and annoyingly through him. The experience led Meiburg to do a master’s degree in geography with a thesis entitled “The Biogeography of Striped Caracaras (Phalcoboenus australis)”, and he is still enthusiastic today. “To call them strange birds of prey,” he writes, “feels like calling the painters of the Italian Renaissance a group of unusually gifted monkeys.”
At the beginning of the book we get to know a striped caracara named Tina who lives in a falconry center in England. Tina’s guardian Geoff mixes up three clams on a table to confuse the bird, but Tina always picks the one that hides a treat underneath. Whenever Geoff asks for a specific colored ball from a tub of balls, she always picks up the right one. Her enthusiasm for gaming, problem solving, and a desire to know more is no longer on the charts. This is unknown in the world of birds of prey. Most birds of prey, like the peregrine falcon – one of the most widespread birds on earth that lives on six continents – are meant for one thing: hunting. Johnny Towers, like us, seem made to think. Yet there are only a few thousand left on the planet, living on a handful of sub-Antarctic islands that may soon disappear due to rising sea levels. This annoys Meiburg, whose subsequent search for answers produces a lively mashup of evolutionary biology, travelogue and biography, which leads us to an eye-opening romp through time and space. Meiburg travels back millions of years to consider plate tectonics, mass extinctions, sea level changes, glacier movements, and the rise and fall of species.
Woven into this account is a 19th century British naturalist who was also fascinated by the bird. According to Meiburg, William Henry Hudson was one of the first to write “a kind word about Caracaras”. Hudson grew up in the Argentine pampas next to and admired a type of Caracara called Chimango. They hunted when the hunt made sense, hunted when the hunt made sense, and explored, investigated, and took risks. Hudson, a lonely soul, also shared her outcast status. He’d moved to England in search of like-minded bird lovers, and while his books were praised by greats like Ezra Pound and Virginia Woolf, well-known ornithologists like John Gould, who cataloged Darwin’s specimens, cursed him as an unrecognized amateur.
As science avoided Hudson, so it avoided the Caracara branch of the Falconidae family. Ornithologists have referred to them as “aberrant hawks” and “a fairly nondescript crowd,” with what are known as true Falconidae hawks – including the peregrine falcons – weighing on all research. The result of Meiburg’s investigation, however, is that falcons are less related to other birds of prey than to a bird famous for its talkative intelligence: Parrots. These two share a common ancestor who survived the asteroid-triggered Cretaceous extinction by occupying what was then forested Antarctica. A land bridge then enabled the falcons to migrate to South America, where 64 species evolved, including ten species of Caracara. (Parrots, meanwhile, likely took another land bridge to Australasia.) When the Americas merged five million years ago, peregrine and other hawks migrated north, while the line that produced striped caracaras never left South America and spanned the length and breadth Longitude meandered the continent’s breadth before landing back where they began near the bottom of Argentina on Antarctica’s doorstep. Meiburg drags himself across the continent to follow this line and learn from the Caracara cousins of the Johnny Tower, who currently live in Guyanese jungles, Altiplano deserts and remote Andean valleys.
“To call them strange birds of prey,” he writes, “feels like calling the painters of the Italian Renaissance a group of unusually gifted monkeys.”
The book convinced Meiburg on site in these difficult places and discovered consistently fascinating Caracara behavior. Deep in the rainforest of Guyana, he finds red-throated caracaras, which mainly survive Eat wasp larva. The birds have found that when the shocked residents dive wasp nests as aggressively as possible, they choose to flee before combat. In the Chilean Altiplano over 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 carakaras, known for turning heavy flat stones in groups in search of edible creatures.
Meiburg’s goals are ambitious. In an attempt to pinpoint why a single species occupies a particular area on earth, he explores an unwieldy compilation of planetary forces spanning eons, and when that is not enough, he tosses in a biography of Hudson to order boot. That is much. Most of the time, he keeps the narrative moving, although now and then he lingers too long in some places. For example, we don’t need the level of detail from Hudson’s novel Green Mansions or the full account of Sir Walter Raleigh’s efforts to find El Dorado in southern Guyana. He more than makes up for this, however, by consistently writing stimulating, as in this delightful passage about a pair of sun bitters on a morning on the banks of the Rewa: “Your song was just as beautiful and strange: a series of hollow notes, the ascending 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, which sang a descending counter-melody in the same octave – then another, the sparkling seven-note song of which was like a bell. “At such moments, Meiburg brings in his deep musical knowledge.
In the end, we discover that the polar vortex has captured striped caracaras in the Falkland Islands and on some nearby islands off Tierra del Fuego. They will remain stranded, Meiburg sadly notes, until a combination of marine pollution, overfishing and sea level rise wiped them out forever. But that doesn’t stop him from dreaming of creative interventions. If peregrine falcons can colonize dense urban centers, why not Johnny Towers? Meiburg envisions moving some of them 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 difficult to imagine that Johnny Towers would follow suit, walk under the Circle Line turnstiles at Paddington Station and go to Hampstead Heath and then return home at night to stay the night,” muses Meiburg. We’re finally talking about a line of birds who successfully stole Darwin, who determined how to eat wasps without getting stung, and who can organize a community rock flipping to find dinner. London would be a breeze.
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Main illustration: Biodiversity Heritage Library / Public Domain