LithHub has a very interesting excerpt from Jonathan Meiburg’s new book on a striated caracara (Phalcoboenus australis), raptor from the Falkland Islands, off the southern tip of South America, that Meiburg contends is “the most intelligent bird in the world.”
Tina entered Geoff’s life by accident, when a talented young falconer named Ashley Smith offered her to him in trade for a goshawk. Goshawks are powerful hunters who excel at chasing prey through dense woods, but they’re rarely own for an audience because of their skittish, aggressive temperaments. Geoff, not without affection, calls them “psychotic,” and adds that there’s a saying among falconers that if you can train a goshawk to hunt for a season without becoming suicidal or getting a divorce, you’ve mastered the art.
This goshawk, however, played against type. It was utterly relaxed on public display, sitting blithely on its perch and fluffing its feathers even when it was surrounded by strangers. Ashley coveted it for his own collection, and Geoff, who wasn’t particularly attached to it, swapped it for Tina out of pure curiosity. He’d never come across a striated caracara in twenty years as a falconer, and had only recently heard of them; it was 1983, the year after the Falklands War, and soldiers were returning from the islands with stories of crow-like birds that peered into their foxholes and perched on the rotors of their helicopters.
Geoff also felt comfortable with the trade because he knew Tina’s life story. She was a little more than a year old, the offspring of a pair of captive striated caracaras who’d raised and edged Tina with minimal help from people. Geoff assumed that Tina would be an interesting but not maddening challenge—but he’ll tell you, with a touch of surprise in his voice, that it was Tina who trained him. In their first years together, he mostly left her alone, though he indulged her preference for running and walking in demonstrations, which earned chuckles from the audience instead of the gasps of wonder that greeted eagles and owls. After a job took him away for several years, Geoff expected he’d need to slowly rehabituate Tina to his presence, as he did with any captive bird he left for longer than a few months. Instead, Tina gave him the first of many surprises: she leaped onto his shoulder, calling and calling, as if to say, It’s you! It’s you! “She was all over me,” Geoff says. “Like a dog.”
Shortly after that, Tina let Geoff know she wanted more from their relationship. He dropped his keys one morning while cleaning her aviary, and before he could retrieve them she jumped down from her perch, grabbed the keys in her beak, and ran to the other side of the enclosure, where she turned and looked Geoff squarely in the eye. Geoff was stunned: no bird in his care had ever done anything like this. He took a step toward her, and she leaned forward, poised to run. This is a game, he thought. She wants to play. For the next few minutes, Tina ran around the perimeter of the aviary with the keys in her beak, deftly evading his grasp, until she finally traded them for food. From then on, this was how each morning began.
As they played together, Tina began to defy nearly all of falconry’s conventions. She didn’t ignore Geoff or try to mate with him: she simply wanted to interact with him, whether she was hungry or not. She loved inedible objects and would study, carry, and manipulate anything Geoff brought her, from plush toys to rubber balls and lengths of rope, and she called for him if he didn’t turn up on schedule. On quiet afternoons she sometimes fell asleep on his shoulder.
Months passed, and their daily games evolved: keep-away became fetch, then the shell game, then tasks that seemed to require abstract thought. Geoff built a device out of PVC pipes to test Tina’s ability to distinguish objects by color and to associate colors with spoken words— and she could. He also bought a set of rubber balls and blocks to see if she could distinguish between objects by shape—and she did. Then he modified Tina’s public performances to reflect her new skills, combining his passions for tinkering and falconry into something approaching behavioral science. Tina went from comic relief to the star of the show, and Geoff began calling her the most intelligent bird in the world.
This interview with Meiburg has a video showing two striated caracaras exhibiting very impressive curiosity and enterprise.