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'A Most Remarkable Creature' Introduces The Little-Known, Charismatic Caracara

<em>A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World's Smartest Birds of Prey,</em> by Jonathan Meiburg
A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World's Smartest Birds of Prey, by Jonathan Meiburg

A handful of animals are so woven into the fabric of human existence that they are part of how we think about ourselves.

With these dogs, chickens and giant pandas, we are caretakers, companions, trainers, consumers, oppressors and rescuers.

Rarely, though, do we admit that with some animals, we are students.

In his elegant debut A Most Remarkable Creature, author Jonathan Meiburg writes: "Unless you live south of the Rio Grande, chances are you've never even heard of caracaras." His book introduces readers to this South American bird of prey, aptly described as "one of the strangest and most wonderful animals on Earth." Belonging to the same family as the sleek, swift peregrine falcon, the nine species of caracara are by contrast inquisitive clowns in the raptor world: "curious, social, and brave, with many interests and few skills." Through Meiburg's own inquiring lens, readers will soon find themselves with a new favorite animal.

I may be biased in this regard. The Falkland Islands' population of striated caracaras is one I am personally acquainted with, as they were the focus of my graduate studies. (I met Meiburg briefly during this time.) Throughout his travels to meet these scrappy, adaptable birds, Meiburg captures the same feeling of gratitude I felt for the opportunity to live among wild animals who directed their appraising gazes into my own. The fact that "evolution can fashion a mind like ours from different materials" is the focus of this sweeping exploration of how these extraordinary animals evolved, how they live now, and what may become of them in an increasingly human world.

We both encountered the difficulty of explaining the species to other ornithologists, who are incredulous that such an animal exists. Meiburg describes nearly losing the hat from his head to a wild caracara "playing tag" above him. I once lost a hot cup of cocoa I'd placed on a fence post beside me to a caracara. Charles Barnard, a sailor marooned in the Falklands in 1812, having finally secured himself shelter for the night, awoke to one of the birds "trying to pull the shoes off his feet." This kind of behavior in a wild bird of prey, though adaptive in an environment in which "the ocean reliably coughs up strange new creatures and objects" seems odd, even ridiculous.

But "calling them odd birds of prey," Meiburg contends, "feels like calling the painters of the Italian Renaissance a group of unusually gifted apes." The few naturalists that have had the fortune to observe them largely agree. William Henry Hudson, a 19th century naturalist, is a regular character in A Most Remarkable Creature. Hudson spent an idyllic boyhood in the Pampas region of Argentina, and unlike his contemporary, Charles Darwin, who remained ever the careful, conservative scientist, Hudson carried an almost spiritual adoration of the region throughout his life. He often thought of animals as people — as do many native cultures the world over. The Amerindian people teach of a time long ago when animals were people — not Henry Beston's "other nations," but one and the same.

Meiburg's voice is poetic; where other nature writers are known for the images they paint of landscapes, here are presented impressions, concepts as complex as species' movements over geologic time, in a way that is at once clear and beautiful. The book is divided into five parts, spanning continents and millennia, providing loving characterizations of behavior, and taxonomy told as a kind of descendant, oral history, all with a naturalist's eye and an artist's voice. He describes Antarctica, which sheltered the caracaras' ancestors from South America's mass extinctions, as "a continent that long ago helped save the animal world, then lifted it drawbridges and froze to death."

But perhaps the most important idea provoked by A Most Remarkable Creature is that we have a lot to learn from the caracaras, who share our "uncontrollable urge for discovery." Caracaras are so many of the things that we are as well: inquisitive and adaptable, "obstinate but flexible," constantly seeking the horizon. Therefore, Meiburg enjoins, we can gain from them: "By looking to the nonhuman world, with all the tools of science and art, can we see what we really are — and that we aren't as alone as we feel."

Though their populations are small and confined, caracaras "refuse to behave like a species on the verge of extinction." As evidenced by the appearance in North America of a few adventurous birds over the last decade, some caracaras are advancing through our world, and we should anticipate greeting them with the same fierce curiosity they show us. "We might even have to ask them to live a new kind of wild life — not 'out there' in a vanishing wilderness, but in here, in the world as we've remade it."

If we are to survive the trials of a changing climate, and a crisis of biodiversity, we must acknowledge that "there's far more to learn about the world than we already know," and mimic the caracaras' "ability to learn from others' successes as well as their own."

Anna Morris is an environmental educator and professional bird trainer at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anna Morris