A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the Worldâ€™s Smartest Birds of Preyby Jonathan Meiburg
Setting: Guyana, Falkland Islands
Published on March 30, 2021
An enthralling account of a modern voyage of discovery as we meet the clever, social birds of prey called caracaras, which puzzled Darwin, fascinate modern-day falconers, and carry secrets of our planet's deep past in their family history.
In 1833, Charles Darwin was astonished by an animal he met in the Falkland Islands: handsome, social, and oddly crow-like falcons that were "tame and inquisitiveâ€¦quarrelsome and passionate," and so insatiably curious that they stole hats, compasses, and other valuables from the crew of the Beagle. Darwin wondered why these birds were confined to remote islands at the tip of South America, sensing a larger story, but he set this mystery aside and never returned to it. Almost two hundred years later, Jonathan Meiburg takes up this chase. He takes us through South America, from the fog-bound coasts of Tierra del Fuego to the tropical forests of Guyana, in search of these birds: striated caracaras, which still exist, though they're very rare. He reveals the wild, fascinating story of their history, origins, and possible futures. And along the way, he draws us into the life and work of William Henry Hudson, the Victorian writer and naturalist who championed caracaras as an unsung wonder of the natural world, and to falconry parks in the English countryside, where captive caracaras perform incredible feats of memory and problem-solving. A Most Remarkable Creature is a hybrid of science writing, travelogue, and biography, as generous and accessible as it is sophisticated, and absolutely riveting.
I had never heard of caracaras. I feel like a failure admitting that. How have I missed them?
Caracaras live mostly in South America with a few outposts in central Florida and in Texas. This book uses the writings of Charles Darwin and William Henry Hudson to introduce them.
Darwin saw them in the Falkland Islands and realized that they were different to other birds of prey. They were curious. Most falcons hunt. They don’t branch out much. This attitude always reminds me of this quote from M*A*S*H.
That’s the attitude of most birds of prey.
Caracaras are different. They explore. They are able to problem solve. They will eat absolutely anything even remotely edible that they can find.
William Henry Hudson was a man from Argentina who moved to England. He wrote a lot about South American wildlife. I’d never heard of him either but he was a very popular writer in his day. The author of this book used his writings often during his journey around South America in search of caracaras.
That search took him on a one month trip up a river into the jungles of Guyana in search of caracaras. He was accompanied by three Guyanese guides/forest experts along with an endearingly enthusiastic American scientist who gets super excited about insects.
There are several species of caracaras. Each occupies a specific niche in South America but they are starting to move around a bit. Their creativity allows them to do this where other bird species can’t. They are even starting to be seen in the northern U.S. and Canada.
I learned quite a bit about the development of different American animals in this book. As North and South America first came into contact with each other, there was a large shift of animals from one land mass to another. I also learned that Antarctica was a temperate haven for animals in the aftermath of the meteor that killed the dinosaurs. Different animals in different parts of the world can be traced back and followed to see how they got from the area where they evolved to where they live now.
This was a fascinating book about more than just the caracaras.