A Most Remarkable Creature

Jonathan Meiburg / Knopf / 384 pages

In 1833, Charles Darwin encountered and was intrigued by incredibly social and clever birds known as caracaras, as documented in his field notes. He was puzzled and fascinated by the oddly crow-like birds who were “tame and inquisitive … quarrelsome and passionate,” and were so innately curious they took to stealing compasses, hats, and various valuables from the crew of the Beagle. 

Darwin wondered why these birds were confined to remote islands off the coast of South America. He felt that there was a bigger story, but set his caracara curiosities aside and never returned to it. Nearly two hundred years later, in A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey, Jonathan Meiburg picks up where Darwin left off. 

The book begins with Meiburg’s first encounter with the species during a visit to Sea Lion Island in the Falklands. A chance discovery of the body of a caracara who was likely killed by a peregrine falcon leads the author on a deep dive into the evolutionary history of the caracara. In his quest to understand the social creatures he notes that caracaras love company and often get into things that they should not be getting into: “Like us, they seem to have an uncontrollable urge for discovery.”

There are only nine known species of caracaras. And though their populations are small and confined, they “refuse to behave like a species on the verge of extinction.” What seems like the most important idea from A Most Remarkable Creature is that humans have a lot to learn from this unique bird of prey, and “that only by looking to the nonhuman world, with all the tools of science and art, can we see what we really are—and that we aren’t as alone as we feel.”

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