Book Review: A Most Remarkable Creature

A striated caracara (with a rockhopper penguin in the background).

In A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World’s Smartest Bird of Prey Jonathan Meiburg has crafted an epic ode to the caracara, a long-overlooked (and often derided) group of birds who deserves more attention and more protection.

There are about ten species of caracara and Meiburg takes us around the world to seek them out. We begin in the Falklands where we live among researchers and meet the striated caracara. Then we climb the mountains of Chile, travel upriver into the forests of French Guyana. We even travel to the UK, where a number of caracaras have been (and still are) held captive.

A note: I wished the author had taken a critical tone toward the practice of using birds for entertainment, the only sections of the book I found off-putting.

And I suspect William Henry Hudson would agree.

William Henry Hudson was an English naturalist (raised in Argentina) whose books about nature and birds inspired countless writers and scientists when they were published a hundred years ago (and still inspire today). In many ways this book is an ode to Hudson, filled with quotes that have since inspired me to seek out Hudson’s writing, a man who presciently saw the damage that humans were doing around the world to animals. That he referred to birds as “feathered people” makes him a hero of mine.

Meiburg writes vividly and passionately of the birds and other species he meets along the way. And we learn in great detail how the species evolved, why there aren’t crows in South America and, until recently, there weren’t many caracaras north of Florida. One editing flaw that appeared from time to time: When the gender of a bird was known, he or she was still occasionally referred to as an “it.”

Now, as for that subtitle. Are caracaras the “smartest birds of prey?” By our standards of intelligence, these birds are brilliant, on par with ravens and parrots (who they are related to). They excel at shell games and can tell the difference between colors and shapes and are endlessly curious. But our definition of intelligence says more about humans than birds. And Meilburg wisely notes that the very fact that these birds are endangered certainly works against the intelligence argument. And, in fact, three species of cararaca are now extinct, such as the Gaudalupe caracara. Meiburg writes:

You might imagine that birds would be better equipped to escape from us than mammals, though the record suggests otherwise. Plenty of continental birds have colonized islands, but no bird species that evolve on an island has ever found a foothold on a larger landmass, and the caracaras are no exception.

I’m hoping we do see exceptions in the years ahead, and that this book inspires greater efforts to protect them. Caracas are indeed remarkable and, by the end of this remarkable book, I think you’ll agree.

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