Any birdwatcher who has spent time in the New World – from the southern USA to southernmost South America – can hardly have failed to encounter and be intrigued by any of the ten members of the caracara family. My own abiding memory is of the ubiquitous Chimango Caracara Milvago chimango of the Argentinian Pampas, and being entertained for a good hour at Cordoba airport by one that appeared to be on a crash course in how to catch a House Sparrow Passer domesticus, with about as much success, it seemed, as I would have had armed with a butterfly net.
We hear a lot about the intelligence of crows, and I have often wondered if we underestimate that of the so-called birds of prey. The caracaras seem to be some kind of meeting place of the two – combining the sociability and generality of the corvids with the appearance and hardware of the raptor. Jonathan Meiburg’s fascination with caracaras leads him on a journey of discovery that ranges widely geographically, and across numerous subjects and themes.
Caracaras were a source of intrigue to Darwin during his South American explorations, and have been both entertainment and irritation to travellers ever since. Two centuries on, Meiburg’s quest begins when he meets RSPB-funded conservationists in the Falkland Islands, global stronghold of the Striated Caracara Phalcoboenus australis. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t take the author long to pick up the trail of W. H. Hudson, who began life on the Pampas before emigrating to Britain to achieve late fame, and later obscurity, as an author and guiding light of the RSPB. Hudson becomes something of a spirit guide for Meiburg through the narrative, and there are perceptive reflections on Hudson’s particular take on nature and empathy with the inner lives and character of birds, caracaras of course to the fore. ‘Being a poor foreigner, it has had no more than a few unfriendly paragraphs bestowed upon it,’ Hudson observed, while concluding that ‘few species are more worthy of careful study’.
Meiburg – lead singer of the Texan indie-rock band Shearwater – makes a compelling case in support of Hudson, and brings a fresh and unique perspective to all this. ‘Calling them odd birds of prey feels like calling the painters of the Italian Renaissance a group of unusually gifted apes,’ he argues. It is impossible to disagree.