Jonathan Meiburg is a musician and writer. His first book, from which this essay is adapted, is “A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey.”
Charles Darwin didn’t want to linger in the “desolate and wretched” landscapes of the Falkland Islands. His first glimpses of their spartan, treeless moorlands, broken only by low mountains and ridges of granitic quartz, brought him none of the elation he’d felt in the lush forests of Brazil — “higher feelings of wonder, astonishment and devotion which fill and elevate the mind.” In a letter to his sister, the 22-year-old naturalist grumbled that “I can plainly see there will not be much pleasure or contentment till we get out of these detestable latitudes and are carrying on all sail to the land where bananas grow.”
A closer look, however, revealed one of the world’s strangest and most wonderful animals. Once ashore, Darwin persuaded a pair of Argentine horsemen to take him on a hunt for feral cattle — a five-day gallop through squalls of snow and ice in which they dodged fierce bulls, slept on bare ground and roasted suppers of wild beef on fires stoked with bones. Darwin was astonished by the fearlessness of the Falklands’ native wildlife: Handsome flocks of upland geese barely looked up as he and his companions thundered past, miniature wolves called “warrahs” paid him little or no attention and starling-like songbirds pecked at his boots. Most striking of all were the birds now known as striated caracaras — bold, inquisitive birds of prey that looked like a cross between an eagle and a raven.
They had bare orange faces, silver-gray beaks, yellow legs and glossy black plumage, and they “constantly haunt[ed] the neighborhood of houses” for offal and kitchen scraps. Unlike the wary hawks and falcons Darwin knew in England, these “mischievous” raptors could walk and run with the speed and agility of pheasants, and the crews of the HMS Beagle and Adventure soon learned that the birds’ interests extended beyond food. “A large black glazed hat was carried nearly a mile,” Darwin wrote, “as was a pair of the heavy balls used in catching cattle … [and] a small Kater’s compass in a red morocco leather case, which was never recovered.” The crew of the Adventure, which surveyed the Falklands while the Beagle made a circuit of islands in nearby Tierra del Fuego, were forced to post lookouts to prevent striated caracaras from flying aboard and tearing the leather from its rigging.
The sub-Antarctic world was full of weird animals — leopard seals, beaked whales, macaroni penguins — but the Falklands’ hat-stealing birds were unique, as were their circumstances. The islands may be the only part of the so-called New World that Europeans actually discovered, and the sealers and whalers who arrived in the early 19th century were the first humans most of the islands’ wildlife had ever seen — a moment that had receded into prehistory for most land animals on earth. Striated caracaras seemed intent on learning to take advantage of these strange new visitors, and one sealer wrote that “the sailors who visit these islands, being often much vexed at their predatory tricks, have bestowed different names upon them, characteristic of their nature, as flying monkeys, flying devils, etc, etc.”
But no naturalist had described the caracaras’ behavior, and Darwin tried to fill the gap by devoting more ink to their antics in “The Voyage of the Beagle” than he gave any other bird. He didn’t speculate about what they planned to do with all their stolen loot, but he wondered why they acted like this — and why they’d chosen these remote islands for their metropolis. Like the giant tortoises and tame mockingbirds he would soon meet in the Galápagos, striated caracaras’ tiny range and odd behavior hinted at a larger story. But he set the mystery of their origins aside, and never took it up again.
Neither did anyone else, which surprised me when I met them almost two centuries later. Some of Darwin’s stray observations have led to entire fields of scientific inquiry, but the riddle of the Falklands’ feathered thieves has remained. The last warrah was killed by sheep farmers in 1879, but striated caracaras still cling to life on the outermost islands of the archipelago, where they hunt and scavenge in breeding colonies of penguins, albatrosses and seals. They’re the southernmost birds of prey on Earth, and among the rarest: No more than a few thousand are left, a number slightly larger than the wild population of giant pandas.
But they don’t act like a species on the verge of extinction. Falkland Islanders call them “Johnny rooks,” a rakish nickname that suits them, and they’ll still pluck the cap from your head, tug at the zippers of your backpack and meet your eye with a forthright, impish gaze. It’s this earnest, playful quality, not their rarity or remoteness, that caught and held me; above all, striated caracaras seem disarmingly conscious, and they crane their necks to peer at everything with keen but slightly dubious interest. In the 1920s, the Falklands’ official naturalist successfully implored the islands’ government to rescind a long-standing bounty on Johnny rook beaks, calling the birds “an ornament of the local avifauna” that “had not learnt that man is dangerous,” and noting that “from their point of view, every unfamiliar object demands immediate investigation.” The first ones I saw, in 1997, stared back at me so intensely that I felt as if I owed them an explanation.
Since then, I’ve returned to the Falklands several times to assist researchers who are trying to understand and protect these peculiar birds. The thrill of seeing them never fades, and the feeling seems oddly mutual: Even after I’ve helped trap them with snares, weighed them in burlap sacks, taken blood samples from their wings and attached identifying rings to their legs, I’ve watched them ruffle their feathers and walk right back toward me, as if compelled by a single burning question: WHAT ARE YOU?
I wish I could tell them that I’m trying to ask them the same thing. The digital age has given us tools for tracking animals into the past that Darwin couldn’t have imagined — genetic analysis, Google Earth, geological maps of the prehistoric world. But piecing together the story of the Falklands’ flying monkeys led me on a long and surprising journey, thousands of miles and millions of years from their homes, and I’ve emerged with an admiration that borders on awe. Striated caracaras may be singular, but they’re not alone: they’re one of 10 living species of caracaras, an ancient and poorly known branch of the falcon family whose members live mostly in South America. Calling them odd birds of prey feels like calling the painters of the Italian Renaissance a group of unusually gifted apes.
Falcons are usually known for their speed, agility and hunting prowess — think of a peregrine or a kestrel — but caracaras’ most striking qualities are their shrewd and adaptable minds. Unlike most birds of prey, caracaras are social and curious, and they feed with gusto on foods other predators disdain. Darwin noticed that they filled the same roles in South America that crows and ravens occupy in other parts of the world, and marveled that a small, dusky species called a chimango caracara, common today in southern South America, was “truly omnivorous, and will eat even bread.”
Further north, red-throated caracaras have learned to thrive on an unlikely diet of wasps’ nests and fruit in the tropical forests of the Amazon basin; mountain caracaras, whose feathers adorned the heads of Inca emperors, have been seen working in teams to uncover lizards and insects by flipping heavy rocks in the high Andes. And the aquiline, black-capped opportunists called crested caracaras are rumored to spread wildfires by dropping burning sticks in dry grass and feasting on the ensuing stream of animal refugees.
Despite these remarkable behaviors, scientists and falconers from the northern world have largely snubbed caracaras. Even Darwin called them “false eagles” who “ill become so high a rank,” and a sense that there’s something unwholesome about them has been slow to ebb. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda affectionately dubbed chimango caracaras “shiftless wanderers of rubbish pits,” and two venerable ornithologists from the United States weren’t kidding when they dismissed the entire group as “a rather unimpressive lot” compared to their northern relatives. Joan Morrison, one of few modern scientists to take an interest in caracaras, told me that biologists still suffer from a lingering prejudice against them, as if they just aren’t what a self-respecting raptor ought to be. “They’re dirty birds,” she said with a half smile. “Bad falcons.”
And in recent years, DNA analysis of birds’ deep histories has added an intriguing twist to the caracaras’ story. Falcons’ closest relatives, it turns out, aren’t other birds of prey. They’re parrots.
The first scientists to examine birds’ brains, noting their smooth surfaces, assumed that they were primitive and unsophisticated. The tight folds of the human forebrain have long been identified as the seat of our concepts of “self” and “other,” our social intelligence, our ability to project ourselves in time — all the ingredients of what we might call consciousness — and from the 1890s to the 1960s, most scientists presumed that birds were purely instinctual creatures, incapable of thought or feeling.
William Henry Hudson, an Argentine-born writer and naturalist who became a celebrated author in England and a founder of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, held a different opinion — not only about birds’ minds, but about caracaras in particular. Hudson never met the Johnny rooks, but he knew chimango and crested caracaras from his youth in the grassy plains of the Pampas, and he admired them. “A bird so cosmopolitan in its habits,” he wrote of chimangos, “would have a whole volume to itself in England; being only a poor foreigner it has had only a few unfriendly paragraphs bestowed upon it.”
Hudson might be relieved to know that in the century since his death, the concept of birds’ minds as bundles of thoughtless instinct has been thrown out. We now know that some birds are capable of most — if not all — of the attributes of consciousness we once reserved for ourselves, including the ability to plan for the future, abstract notions of time and self and the need to process daily experiences through dreams.
In the past decade, fruits of this research have left the obscure realms of cognitive science and entered popular culture. Videos showing the flexibility of birds’ minds have proliferated on the internet, where a quick search reveals a New Caledonian crow solving puzzles involving levers, weights, ramps and pulleys; an Indian mynah joking with its owner in English; a crow-like bird called an Australian magpie wrestling playfully with a dog and swinging from a clothesline. Some birds have even reached levels of fame usually reserved for humans: The death of Alex, a parrot who conversed with researchers at Harvard about concepts like number, shape and color, was mourned around the world.
All this would have pleased Hudson, but he’d probably have chastised modern scientists for taking so long to accept the obvious. Birds, he believed, had their own senses of reason and aesthetics. As he argued against the philosopher George Santayana: “Beauty is not a casual growth, the result of a seed fallen from goodness knows where into a man’s life; it is inherent in the granite itself … and it is in the animals, as we see from their games and music. All my long, close observation convinces me that such a sense is well developed in the birds — especially in the crow and parrot families.”
Though he didn’t grow up with crows, Hudson came to know them well in England, from the streets of London to the cliffs of Cornwall, and they amazed him with their feats of social organization and memory. But England also gave him more experience than he might have expected with parrots, which were a surprisingly common ornament of Victorian households.
This pleased him at first, but it gave him little joy to see them caged and forced to perform tricks. “It is a depressing experience,” he confessed, “on a first visit to nice people, to find that a parrot is a member of the family. When I am compelled to stand in the admiring circle, to look on and to listen while he exhibits his weary accomplishments, it is but lip service that I render: My eyes are turned inward, and a vision of a green forest comes before them resounding with the wild, glad, mad cries of flocks of wild parrots … in his proper place, which is not in a tin cage in the room of a house.”
There was one parrot, however, for whom he made an exception: a large green and gold bird named Polly, who lived at an inn in the North Wessex Downs. Polly belonged to the inn’s owner, a widow whose late husband had bought the bird in Mexico half a century earlier. According to the widow, Polly talked up a storm in Spanish when she first arrived in England, and “had two favorite songs, which delighted everybody, although no one could understand the words.”
But in the succeeding years, Polly’s vocabulary changed. She began to pick up and use English words and phrases, and eventually seemed to forget her Spanish altogether. By the time she met Hudson, her plumage was tattered with age and she had a slight tremor — but her eyes, he recalled, were still “full of the almost uncanny parrot intelligence.” Polly enjoyed the run of the inn and was a regular at evening meals, where she sat at the table on a perch and ate what she liked. “As she was of a social disposition,” Hudson wrote, “she preferred taking her meals with the family, and eating the same food” — including meat, in a culinary echo of her shared lineage with falcons.
At breakfast she would come to the table and partake of bacon and fried eggs, also toast and butter and jam and marmalade; at dinner it was a cut off the joint with (usually) two vegetables, then pudding or tart with pippins and cheese to follow. Between meals she amused herself with bird seed, but preferred a meaty mutton-bone, which she would hold in one hand or foot and feed on with great satisfaction.
Hudson tried to make friends with Polly by offering her a candy or a scratch on the top of her head, but she wasn’t having it and bit him hard enough to draw blood. Then he tried speaking to her in Spanish, “in a sort of caressing falsetto … calling her lorita instead of Polly, coupled with all the endearing epithets used by the women of the green continent in addressing their green pets.” This, he said, had an immediate and striking effect.
Polly instantly became attentive. She listened and listened, coming down nearer to listen better, the one eye she fixed on me shining like a fiery gem. But she spoke no word, Spanish or English, only from time to time little low inarticulate sounds. … It was evident after two or three days that she was powerless to recall the old lore, but to me it also appeared evident that a vague memory of a vanished time had been evoked — that she was conscious of a past and was trying to recall it. At all events the effect of the experiment was that her hostility vanished, and we became friends at once. She would come down to me, step on to my hand, climb to my shoulder and allow me to walk about with her.
A few months later, Hudson received a letter: Polly had died at the age of 55. This was relatively young for a large parrot, but he mused that “half a century of fried eggs and bacon, roast pork, boiled beef and carrots, steak and onions and stewed rabbit must have put a rather heavy strain on her system.” Whether or not she’d been done in by pub meals, Hudson was moved by the thought that he and Polly might have shared a memory of a common home to which neither of them could return — and to him, her curious reaction to his Spanish seemed like proof of not only her intelligence, but her ability to access the mysterious and melancholy depths of memory.
Earlier scientists were right, in one sense, to conclude that birds’ brains are different from ours. As we grow inside our mother’s womb, drawing nutrients through the umbilical cord, our folded neocortex develops from the lower surface of our fetal forebrain. A bird’s equivalent structure, a smooth bulb called a pallium, grows from its brain’s upper surface as it absorbs the yolk of its hard-shelled egg. The human neocortex and the avian pallium evolved independently, but their functions are largely alike — a stunning convergence between animals who haven’t shared a common ancestor in almost 200 million years.
Scientists have been trying for decades to understand how curiosity, innovation and social learning evolve, and why they appear in some animal species but not others. There’s been a long debate over whether the seeds of what we call intelligence are intrinsic to an organism’s genetic heritage or produced in response to the challenges and opportunities of its environment; the answer is probably a combination of the two. But one factor that seems especially important is a habitat where the distribution and availability of food is largely unpredictable — where rote behaviors alone won’t give you what you need. To survive in these places, an animal has to be observant enough to find and identify new sources of food, even if it’s never seen them before.
This is where social learning — and, by extension, culture — are especially helpful. If you can learn from your peers, you can reap the benefits of their successes and failures in your own lifetime, without waiting for natural selection to do its slow work on your gene pool. And keeping track of details like the personalities and relationships of other members of your social group, the shape and and taste of a wide variety of foods and the location of caches you’ve stashed away for later may require a larger, more powerful brain. Indeed, nearly all the animals we regard as intelligent — baboons, crows, raccoons, caracaras, humans — are big-brained social generalists that thrive in unpredictable environments.
Another side effect of a larger brain may be a longer and less stressful life. One study showed lower background levels of a stress hormone in large-brained, long-lived crows and parrots than in smaller-brained, shorter-lived birds like pigeons and quail — suggesting, rather obviously, that living in constant anxiety takes a toll on the body. This isn’t to say that pigeons and quail don’t have thoughts, but it does make sense that birds whose powers of deduction and foresight aren’t as acute might lean harder on the instinctive warnings of reflexive fear.
You might point out, of course, that pigeons and quail are social birds. But some social lifestyles don’t require as much curiosity or innovation as others. Penguins, for example, are definitely social — but as a penguin researcher once told me, not unkindly, the only thing dumber than a penguin is a rock. He didn’t really mean this as a knock against penguins, which perform stunning feats of navigation and endurance — but they rarely need to solve novel problems. Their lives consist of chasing their favorite prey, following other penguins around, avoiding larger aquatic predators and basking in the sun on the islands where they breed.
Striated caracaras face a nearly opposite set of challenges. As island-bound scavengers who can’t swim and don’t migrate, they need to notice and understand everything around them — especially if they haven’t encountered it before. And if you wanted to test the proposition that an unpredictable environment might favor the evolution of curiosity, you could hardly design a better laboratory than the Falklands, where the availability and types of food vary wildly from one season to the next, and the ocean frequently coughs up strange new creatures and objects. Johnny rooks have been the subjects of this natural experiment for thousands of years, and the results may have favored individuals who were best at seeing and exploiting new opportunities, and weren’t afraid of anything.
But their tiny range and small population make me wonder if there’s such a thing as too much curiosity, or too much courage. They point to an uncomfortable conclusion: Intelligence, in itself, might not guarantee survival or success. It might even be a liability. We’re proud of our large brains, but they come with troublesome drawbacks — existential doubt, for example — and they consume almost a fifth of our bodies’ daily metabolic needs. If we didn’t need them, we’d probably start to lose them, just as we long ago lost the ability to breathe underwater.
Another way to think about the waxing and waning of intelligence is to consider the ability we envy most in birds: flight. It took feathered dinosaurs tens of millions of years to evolve it, but its demands place severe constraints on birds’ size and weight, and they’ve abandoned it many times. Some flightless birds are famously extinct, like the dodo (which was doing fine until we came along), but others are still with us, like penguins, ostriches and emus. Less famous examples include Galápagos cormorants, a nocturnal parrot from New Zealand that looks like a big green owl and the huge, cantankerous “steamer” ducks of the Falklands and Tierra del Fuego. Once there was even a giant, flightless caracara, which ran down prey in the coastal grasslands of ice-age Jamaica.
The differences between the caracaras and their more famous falcon relatives may reflect a similar bargain. If you compared a peregrine’s brain to a Johnny rook’s, you might find that the peregrine’s enormous eyes have crowded out parts of its forebrain — or that it simply discarded features of its mind it no longer needed to become a peerless, solitary hunter. Peregrines crave routine and avoid mistakes; Johnny rooks love novelty, crave company and hate boredom. Like us or their parrot cousins, they seem to have an urge not just to interact with the world, but to understand it — a quality Darwin’s fond uncle described as his nephew’s “enlarged curiosity.” A mind like this offers its owner many rewards. It also comes with great risks.