A couple of my favourite bands over the last decade have been Shearwater and Loma, and both have Jonathan Meiburg at their core. But Jonathan is more than just a unique and gifted songwriter and musician, because along with his career in music he’s very active in the field of evolutionary zoology, with a particular interest in ornithology and a little studied but fascinating member of the Falcon family – the Striated Caracara. And now Jonathan has written a book on the subject; ‘A Most Remarkable Creature’. I finished the book a little while ago, but I keep glancing at my copy, wondering about picking it up and reading it again.
The Striated Caracara, one of twelve in the family, is a native of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. And due perhaps to the fact that survival in such a desolate and isolated location is unbelievably hard, the Striated Caracara, or ‘Johnny Rook’ as it’s known locally, has developed a remarkable degree of intelligence and adaptability. It astonished Charles Darwin with its inquisitiveness and apparent playfulness when he visited the Falklands on The Beagle in 1833, and as Jonathon so engagingly describes, there’s pretty much nothing a Striated Caracara won’t investigate or plunder to see if it’s edible or will potentially provide some other benefit – which may well just be its play value. Seems, if you put your hat down anywhere within reach of a striated caracara, you probably ought to plan to buy a new hat.
Despite the genealogy of the Striated Caracara being that of a Falcon, they display the kind of social behaviour and intelligence much more commonly imagined to be the exclusive domain of Corvids. And that partly drives Jonathan’s narrative as he investigates and describes how evolution, both of the planet and its feathered inhabitants (dinosaur and bird) all the way back to the time of the Cretaceuous extinction event have driven the development of this most remarkable creature. The book is in roughly equal parts one of evolutionary science, travel, cultural history and advenure, and it had me thinking deeply on the subject of how we define conscious intelligence and how it might have evolved independently numerous times. Jonathan tells his story with a light touch, engaging enthusiasm and obvious affection for his subject. If you have the slightest interest in the planet we call home, and the way its inhabitants came to be the way they are, I can suggest few better books than Jonathan’s.