- The Good: Underrated birds who remind us the natural world is teeming with secrets, if only we take the time to look
- The Bad: Lack of clear organization and aim
- The Literary: See pictorial graph of caracara evolution, heavily annotated notes, and an extensive bibliography
During his five year voyage on the Beagle, Charles Darwin explored the Falklands, tiny islands on the tip of South America, and wrote about a remarkable crow-like falcon. “Tame and inquisitive…quarrelsome and passionate,” these bold and curious birds followed overhead, stealing shiny objects, hats, or shoelaces. The rare striated caracara, also known as the “walking falcon” or “Johnny Rook” still fascinate modern falconers, but their history and origin is an even more interesting story.
In this sprawling tale of science, natural history, and travelogue, Johnathan Meiburg brings to life a highly opportunistic bird of which I had never heard, paints a vivid portrait of the Victorian naturalist William Henry Hudson, and waxes poetic about deep time and the relationship of humans to the natural world as he explores fog-bound coasts of Tierra del Fuego and the tropical forests of Guyana.
The Johnny Rooks probably approached Darwin with such boldness because they were not accustomed to humans, but in the wild they are wily bird, known to scavenge dead animals for food as you might expect, but they also raid nests of larger birds of prey, or even attack live sheep. The Falklands government encouraged locals to hunt the birds, but as they neared extinction, a conservation plan was implemented, though they still only survive on a few islands.
Most species of caracara (one of which feasts on live wasp nests) exist in South America. Another species reaches farther into North America and has been observed working together in small groups to overturn large rocks. Several live in captivity, kept by enthusiastic falconers in Texas and the English countryside who describe their birds as the smartest in the world because they constantly learn new tricks and perform incredible feats of problem-solving and improvisation.
Following the phylogenetic tree backwards in time, these birds of prey date back to the dinosaurs. Their skeletons have been found all over the Americas including the LaBrea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. Combined the phylogeography—the exploration of when the continents of North and South American reunited to form the Great American Biotic Interchange (GABI)—Meiburg’s journey expands far back in time and space.
My favorite and the most accessible section of the book is the travelogue, in which a young Meiburg narrates his own journey through jungles and rivers, searching for caracaras, finding the world’s largest spider, capybaras, and piranhas. In a dangerous landscape that not so long ago dominated the planet, Meiburg’s musings transport the reader from a constant barrage of information to a place where “the moon erupted from the trees across the river, so huge and bright it almost seemed to make a sound.”
Expect a journey more than a destination in this book that offers to kindle wonder and curiosity about the natural world and our place in it. Highly recommended as an accessible, illustrative introduction to naturalism and birds of prey!