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'A Most Remarkable Creature': Jonathan Meiburg reveals the curiosity and charisma of the caracara

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Jonathan Meiburg
Jonathan Meiburg

You can trace the origins of the fascination with the caracara — a smart, sociable bird of prey — to 1833 when Charles Darwin met an unusual animal in the Falkland Islands. In their inquisitiveness and intelligence, he saw a larger story and wondered why they were confined to the remote islands at the tip of South America. What was the fuller story of this curious bird? Fast forward about 200 years and Jonathan Meiburg has picked up those and other clues of this mystery. His book A Most Remarkable Creature is part science writing, part travelogue, part history, part biography and offers a comprehensive story of the caracara. Along the way we meet other avian creatures and human ones, who, like Meiburg, champion these improbably remarkable birds.

Highlights from the interview with Jonathan Meiburg 

On how the fascination with the caracara began
When I met them in the Falklands in 1997, I wasn't interested in birds. I had gone there as part of this fellowship called the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, which is a weird and wonderful program that funds students who've just left college to pursue a project that they designed themselves for a year in countries that they've never been to outside the United States. And the only rule is that you can't come back. You have to be on your own and you can't affiliate with an institution. You just have to chase your project. And the project that I had pitched was a study of community life at the ends of the earth. So I picked the most remote places I could think of as a 21-year-old person and went to them and lived there. And one of the places I went was the Falkland Islands. I had a vague notion that you might be able to see penguins there. But when I went to one of the outer islands, I met these other birds that looked like a combination of a hawk and a crow and came right up to me and took a pen that I offered them and flew away with it. And they just stared at me with this uncanny expression. That was, I remember thinking at the time, it was like they were asking me to do something and I had no idea what that meant, but it really stayed with me. I feel like in some strange way, this is what they were asking me to do was to write this book.

On one of his favorite parts of his book 
My favorite section in the book actually is part three...about a long river journey into Southern Guyana with three Amerindian men and a Canadian researcher looking for a species called Red-throated caracaras, which live in tropical forests and eat mostly wasps nests. They nest in giant bromeliads and they have large multi-individual family groups that raise one chick at a time. They're sort of almost tribal in their behavior. They have a territory, but they patrol as a group and spend all their time sort of yelling at anything that they think is an intruder. That section was just the greatest pleasure, both the research and also to write, because one of the threads in the book is the experiences of people with caracaras, but not just Europeans. Also Amerindian people who've had thousands of years of experience with characters throughout mainland, South America that's as close as I was able to get to. It felt very lucky to be able to travel with Amerindian people in that place. And especially because they spoke English, which was very lucky for me, as Guyana is about the only place you can find Amerindian peoples speaking English in South America.

On his career in music and his work researching and writing about the caracara
The thing is that I think for me, both looking at a subject like this and also playing and writing and recording music are just ways to kind of get outside of yourself, which is a feeling that, the older I get, the more I crave it...and to grow in your knowledge and understanding of the world that we live in, the people that you live with. One of my favorite things about playing music is working with other musicians because people play like they are in some way, no matter what their level of technical ability is. When you play with another person, you see fundamental aspects of them come forward in the way that they perform, that you don't see in any other way. And I guess in a way in this sort of quest that the book is...I was delighted to see other people transformed and myself transformed through participating in this, this question about what are these spirits? What are they doing here? What does it mean that they're here? What's their history? What do they tell us about the world? Because by looking through sort of the keyhole of these funny birds that Darwin met at the Southern end of South America, back in 1833, you're able to sort of see the entire world open before you, and you could do this. This is one of the points of the book really is you could do this with anything. Almost any living thing is going to have a story as interesting and as convoluted as these birds. But these birds' charisma, when you meet them in the present moment, is what really puts them over the top for me.

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Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.