A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey, by Jonathan Meiburg

October 16, 2021 at 10:56 pm (Book review, books, Nature)

Jonathan Meiburg has written an unusual book – part travelogue, part nature study, part literary exegesis, and all very intriguing.

The titular remarkable creature is the caracara. This bird is closely related to the falcon species, but differs from it in several ways. Caracaras spend a great deal more time on the ground than the average raptor, walking  from place to place, being both idle and curious. They have a large repertoire of food preferences, i.e. they’ll eat almost anything. They interact with humans by grabbing anything they can whenever they can. It is monkey-like behavior. My favorite story- from among many with which Meiburg regales us – has to do with a tennis game in which caracaras would stroll onto the court to retrieve errant tennis balls.

I daydream about keeping a striated caracara in my apartment. It would be the world’s most exasperating roommate, but watching it build a nest of shredded T-shirts, LP jackets, and guitar strings in my bookshelf might be worth it. I can imagine it standing on my kitchen counter in the morning, tearing into a box of cereal with its beak or cracking an egg with a blow from its clenched foot, then stashing a piece of toast under my chair while I boil water for coffee. After breakfast, it might become absorbed in a dirty sock or a roll of paper towels while I try to figure out where it’s hidden my keys.

There are several subspecies of caracara. Here are two:

Crested Caracara

 

Striated Caracara, feeding on carrion, something they have no hesitation about doing

Jonathan Meiburg sought out this feathered creature in some fairly exotic locales. Caracaras are native to  the Falkland Islands; in addition, they can be found in the South American country of Guyana, where Meiburg had some fascinating, not to say harrowing, adventures.

All the while his writing is penetrating and beautiful. Here he describes doing research on Steeple Jason, one of the islands in the Falkland complex:

It was typical field science grunt work—tough, dull, and faintly absurd—but it had its moments. Steeple Jason’s twin peaks give it the stark beauty its Homeric name suggests, and on clear days the cold air streaming in on the southwest wind was so pure that a veil seemed to lift from the world. Giant petrels wheeled above the island’s central ridge, and crowds of gentoo penguins emerged from the surf to bask in the sun at its slender neck. Most of the penguins milled and snoozed in a loose colony near their landing beach, but a few followed an obscure yearning and climbed the ridge to gaze at the sea from above.

As you can easily see, this author has an admirable empathy with the creatures of the air and sea. His passion for nature is inspiring. As often as he can, he brings in the life and works of W.H. Hudson, who grew up on the Pampas of Argentina and shared this same passion.

The trees above us trembled and groaned, and I remembered Hudson’s description of a private forest near London called Savernake, where he loved to sit among giant copper beeches and listen to the wind in their branches—an experience, he wrote, “worth going far to seek.” That is a mysterious voice which the forest has: it speaks to us, and somehow the life it expresses seems nearer, more intimate, than that of the sea. Doubtless because we are ourselves terrestrial and woodland in our origin; also because the sound is infinitely more varied as well as more human in character. There are sighings and moanings, and wails and shrieks, and wind-blown murmurings, like the distant confused talking of a vast multitude.

Hudson is obviously a writer worth getting to know. I remember when I was a girl my mother handing me his novel Green Mansions, telling me she thought I’d like it. I did – in fact, I loved it. But I’ve not read anything by him since, and I was unaware of the scope and  beauty of his nonfiction writings. So this is a bonus gift from the author of A Most Remarkable Creature. 

William Henry Hudson 1841-1922

It turns out that Jonathan Meiburg has a band called Shearwater. I certainly admire his versatility! On the band’s website you will find several sound files.

The caracara is indeed a most  remarkable creature, and this is a most remarkable  book. Highly recommended, especially if you care about the earth and its nonhuman inhabitants.

 

 

 

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