The Current

Why it's time to appreciate the caracara, the 'extremely weird' falcon that acts like a crow

In his new book, Jonathan Meiburg argues that the striated caracara has an unique mind, and is :an incredible example of the flexibility of the world of birds to produce different kinds of minds and intelligences.

Caracaras are incredible example of the minds birds can produce, says author Jonathan Meiburg

An adult striated caracara. Jonathan Meiburg explores the traits of this unusual bird in his book A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of The World's Smartest Birds of Prey. (Andrew Stanworth)

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Author Jonathan Meiburg was exploring the Falkland Islands in 1997, when a large group of dark birds came running across the ground toward him.

"I had never heard of these birds. I'd never seen them. I didn't know anything about them," said Meiburg, who was conducting research on the Falklands at the time.

"But they just ran right up to me, staring at me as if to say, 'What are you, and how can we make use of you?'" he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

The creatures were caracaras, birds of prey with several subspecies spread across Central and South America. Some have also turned up in Canada in recent years. 

Though the birds are part of the falcon family, they've often been described as behaving more like scavengers, such as crows. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda called the caracara an "insolent bird" and a "pile of irritating feathers," while Charles Darwin, encountering the birds on his 1830s voyage aboard the Beagle, likened them to "false eagles."

Though caracaras are part of the falcon family, they've often been described as behaving more like scavengers. (Jonathan Meiburg)

Meiburg was on the islands fresh out of college, on a fellowship to study human life in remote locations. But the encounter with the birds piqued his interest. More than 20 years later, he has published a book called A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of The World's Smartest Birds of Prey. The book explores the evolutionary history of the caracaras and wider South America, but it is also a defence of the much-maligned bird.

Caracaras display a unique intelligence that has been "unsung for far too long," he said.

"They are just an incredible example of the flexibility of the world of birds to produce different kinds of minds and intelligences."

'They like solving problems'

Meiburg said that the birds have demonstrated their unique minds in captivity, where keepers report that they behave very differently to other birds of prey in training.

"They like solving problems. They like finding hidden objects, crawling through things, under things, and they want to interact with us even if they're not hungry," he said.

"They want to do something new all the time, which is extremely weird for birds of prey."

A group of adult striated caracaras on Steeple Jason Island, in the Falklands. Their population is concentrated in that part of the world. (Jonathan Meiburg)

Like Darwin before him, Meiburg took an interest in the striated caracara. This type is a dark, brownish-black, apart from chestnut feathers above their yellow legs, and fine white or silvery streaks (straitions) on their necks and breasts, making them look "like a crow that's really gotten dressed up for a special occasion," he said. 

The birds live together and feed in large groups, and are just as likely to steal what they need as hunt for it.

"They stole hats and compasses and things from the crew of the Beagle, and they did the same to me," Meiburg said.

Meiburg recalled once laying a trap to catch the birds for study, by pinning some meat to the ground and laying nooses around it.

As the researchers watched, two caracaras approached and began to eat the meat together. But before they could trigger the trap, a third caracara appeared.

Caracaras have been known to steal objects from humans, as noted by Charles Darwin during his voyage to the Falklands in the 1830s. (Jonathan Meiburg)

The first two chased the newcomer off, but it returned a moment later, adopting a different posture.

"[It] dropped its head like it was a little fledgling, even though it was a fully adult bird, and started making the little fledgling begging call, like 'Ooh ooh ooh, I'm a little baby. I'm a little hungry baby," Meiburg said.

After getting closer to the meat, the first two birds returned to chase the third one away to a nearby perch.

It stared at the out-of-reach meat for a few moments, then let out a loud cry.

"Suddenly, 12 more birds come in and they all swarm the trap," said Meiburg.

In the melee, the third bird swooped in and grabbed some of the meat.

"It was like you could watch this bird over the course of just a couple of minutes trying these different strategies, like 'Who can I be, what relation can I have to these birds that's going to let me get what I want?'"  Meiburg said.

"It was stunning."

Striated caracara gather in flocks, and often show no fear of humans. (Jonathan Meiburg)

Island life, and urban survival

The striated caracara population is concentrated on the Falklands and other islands at the furthest tip of South America, with an estimated couple thousand left in the wild.

In his book, Meiburg explores how a combination of environmental factors have kept the birds confined in that part of the world (he points to polar winds coming from Antarctica that have served to fence the birds in). But he thinks that had the birds not been constrained by this accident of geography, they could easily thrive in other parts of the world.

"One of them got loose from the London Zoo just a couple of years ago and went on the lam for 10 days, says Meiburg, and was seen walking down north London's local high street, ripping into a whole cooked chicken.

"When they got him back at the zoo, they said, 'Well, clearly he found plenty of things to eat.' He was in good condition."

Meiburg offers a defence of the often-maligned bird in his book A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of The World's Smartest Birds of Prey. (Jenna Moore; Knopf Publishers)

Meiburg thinks that urban jaunt may offer clues to helping the caracara survive the impact of climate change.

Rising sea levels would threaten the birds' habitat and food sources on the islands they're used to, he said.

If the birds can't be protected on the islands they currently live on, "we may need to think about bringing them in with us, in some way," he said.

"It sort of violates some sense that we might have about the sanctity of nature — but nature doesn't regard us in the same way."

He pointed out that raccoons and squirrels and ravens live all over cities like Toronto.

"There are animals that have learned how to deal with us, and it may be that our conservation efforts could rely on basically giving them the chance to do just that."

Young striated caracaras peer at visitors on Carcass Island, in the Falklands. (Jonathan Meiburg)

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Ben Jamieson. 

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