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Most of us probably haven’t heard of caracaras. This is definitely our loss. Luckily, A Most Remarkable Creature by Jonathan Meiburg sets out to right this wrong by introducing us to one of the most fascinating groups of birds you are ever likely to meet.
Jonathan Meiburg is probably most famous as the lead singer of the bands Shearwater and Loma (definitely check them out – both bands deserve to be better known). However, with a background in geography and ornithology, Meiburg is more than qualified to lead us on an enthralling ride that takes in the Falkland Islands, the Andes and the rainforests of Guyana to look for caracaras.
He first encountered striated caracaras on a visit to the Falklands and was very quickly fascinated by this charismatic member of the falcon family. Known locally as ‘Johnny Rooks’, the birds are fearless, curious, incredibly intelligent and unusually social for a bird of prey. On further travels in South America he saw some of the other members of the group, including the rainforest-dwelling red-throated caracara and the mountain caracaras of the Andes.
As well as exploring their current status, the book also delves into the evolutionary history of the caracaras. Recent research shows that falcons are much more closely related to parrots than they are other birds of prey. This may well explain the caracaras’ social nature. The book gives a fascinating introduction not only to evolutionary theory but also to biogeography and the way plate tectonics influence evolution. How species have been isolated or thrust together has had a huge affect on these birds’ evolutionary path.
William Henry Hudson
A Most Remarkable Creature, though, is also a moving tribute to the Victorian writer William Henry Hudson. Hudson grew up on the Argentinian Pampas and found all birds fascinating, including the local caracara species, the chimango. Expecting to find more like-minded natural history enthusiasts in England, he moved there permanently in 1874, only to be snubbed as an amateur. Later in life, he found fame with his writing about the English countryside and his life in Argentina, and had the respect of writers such as Virginia Woolf and Edward Thomas. He was also part of the campaign against using bird feathers in fashion that led to the foundation of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
So much more than a natural history book, this is also a travelogue, a biography and a science book and is incredibly readable. The extensive notes alone are worth reading for the fascinating rabbit-holes Meiburg leads us down. Meiburg’s enthusiasm for his subject is infectious. This really is a most remarkable book.
First published in 1909, Afoot in England is William Henry Hudson’s account of various journeys he made on foot across the south of England. It is a recognised classic today.
Charles Darwin also appears a lot in Meiburg’s book. He encountered caracaras during the famous voyage that helped shape his evolutionary ideas. The Voyage of the Beagle is his account of the trip.