Knopf, 366 pages, $30
If you’ve ever been at a dull party and then met a person who suddenly brightened the vibe with energetic conversation about his abundant enthusiasms, you know a little of what it’s like to come upon Jonathan Meiburg and his first book during a pandemic. Dedicated to unraveling mysteries around the striated caracara, a bird of prey that lives primarily in the Falkland Islands off South America, A Most Remarkable Creature sparks almost as much curiosity about its author as it does about its feathered subject.
Meiburg professes to focus on “the hidden life and epic journey of the word’s smartest birds of prey,” as his subtitle tells us. But he also takes us on a series of peregrinations, intellectual, imaginative, and actual wanderings loosely wrapped around his ambition to know the striated caracara, a delightful oddball of a raptor.
The story begins with Meiburg’s first encounter with the species during a visit to Sea Lion Island in the Falklands, when he unexpectedly finds himself in the company of two caracaras. True to their sociable, curious nature, they approach rather than fly off. “One took a few steps in my direction and cocked its head like a dog,” he writes — and the interaction becomes more interesting from there.
It does not, however, become a human-bird relationship story. Unlike Helen Macdonald in her exquisite and highly personal memoir, H Is for Hawk, Meiburg gives us the striated caracara as a way to explore natural history and to consider the work of Charles Darwin and William Henry Hudson. The latter was a Victorian-era novelist and naturalist who, like Darwin, explored South America and was fascinated by animals. Hudson sustained an intense interest in caracaras and wondered about them in a way that seems to speak to Meiburg’s soul. Hudson’s companionable presence, and some of his delightful prose, enrich this book.
But back to the birds.
In general, caracaras (10 species scattered across South and Central America, with a smattering in the southern United States) are the very definition of “mash-up.” As Meiburg writes, “If you try to imagine ten separate attempts to build a crow on a falcon chassis, with results falling somewhere between elegant, menacing, and whimsical, you wouldn’t be far off.”
While caracaras are members of the falcon family, they’re a good bit slower than peregrines, which are celebrated for their ability to reach 200 miles per hour in a hunting dive. Caracaras are frequently ground-dwellers, clacking around on the rocks and scavenging smaller birds, eggs, insects, and carrion. When the opportunity arises, they’ll dig into scraps humans have left behind, too.
Meiburg explores several species of caracaras, including the Mexican eagle, or crested caracara, and the red-throated, which dines on wasp larvae. But striated caracaras — colloquially known as Johnny rooks — are special by dint of their rarity and their far-flung homeland. Only a few thousand of them exist in nature. They might be expected to shun company, in typical raptor fashion, yet they bring a corvid’s social nature to their encounters with others.
In his efforts to answer big questions, such as how the striated caracara became separated from its cousins, Meiburg journeys into the history of shifting land masses, the effects on species distribution and migration, and the asteroid strike responsible for mass extinctions. Though the tales are well-told and connected to the book’s mission to understand why different species ended up where they did, these explorations go on a little longer and delve a little deeper than I’d have liked. I craved more bird encounters.
Meiburg dedicates several chapters to a lengthy guided journey into the tropical forests and waterways of Guyana on a quest to find relatives of the Johnny rooks and to experience the setting of Hudson’s novel Green Mansions: A Romance of the Tropical Forest. He and his traveling companions power through damp landscapes, meeting every imaginable thing that crawls, swims, slithers, slides, or flies. Arachnophobes, beware: There’s a fleeting description of sharing space with hundreds of wolf spiders, some the size of a fist, that is as chilling as it mystical.
Like travel itself, A Most Remarkable Creature is more journey than destination. While Meiburg seems disinclined toward environmental preaching, he does want to ignite our curiosity. The book elegantly reminds us that we cheat ourselves when we underestimate creatures we have deemed low, annoying, or common.
For most of human history, birds were commonly assumed to lack emotions or intelligence. Only relatively recently has science upended these notions, giving us a more complex perspective. “We now know that some birds are capable of nearly all — if not all — the attributes of consciousness we once reserved for ourselves,” Meiburg writes, “including the ability to plan for the future, abstract notions of time and self, and the need to process daily experiences through dreams.”
We may never visit the Falklands or meet a caracara of any kind. But crows, hawks, vultures, songbirds, and pigeons are in plentiful supply. The lens of wonder allows us to see that, they, too, are remarkable.