For Jonathan Meiburg, meeting striated caracaras in the Falkland Islands was something like love at first sight. It's not a surprise that he took so quickly to the birds — he's an ornithologist, and he even named the indie rock band he fronts, Shearwater, after the migrating seabird.
But the caracaras were something else — the endangered birds "refuse to behave like a species on the verge of extinction. They'll pluck the cap from your head, tug at the zippers of your backpack, and meet your eye with a forthright, impish gaze," Meiburg writes.
Meiburg's debut book, "A Most Remarkable Creature," is more than just a love letter to the striated caracaras, although it's definitely that; it's also a fascinating look at history, evolution and how humans interact with the creatures that we share the planet with.
Meiburg writes about his first encounter with the birds: "The first ones I saw stared back at me so intensely that I felt slightly abashed, as if I owed them an explanation." He recounts visiting Evita, a caracara that lives in an English falconry center, writing that "it's her eyes that hold you — huge, dark, curious, forthright. She doesn't look past you with vague disinterest, as the other birds do; she looks into you, which is charming but also unnerving."
The author dives deep into history and travels the globe to gain a better understanding of the birds. He writes about Charles Darwin, who observed the "false eagles" in the Falklands, and William Henry Hudson, the author who had a fascination with chimango caracaras. In one engrossing section, Meiburg recounts his voyage to Guyana in search of red-throated caracaras, the cousins of the birds that have captured his imagination.
The book ends with something of a call to arms — the striated caracaras, he writes, are in danger of disappearing: "Their small population and range are red flags of impending extinction, and humans have done them few favors in the Falklands, where introduced predators and decades of persecution have taken a toll on their members, their prey, and their habitats."
He suggests that the caracaras might thrive in cities, far from their remote Falklands home, while allowing that a plan to introduce them to urban environments would be unlikely to be adopted. Still, he writes, "we may need to stretch our ideas of wildlife conservation in ways that seem risky, even reckless, if we want to save" the birds.
Meiburg is an enormously skilled writer, and even if you've never heard of striated caracaras, you're likely to be drawn in by his enthusiasm and elegant prose. And while "A Most Remarkable Creature" is an endlessly interesting look at the birds, Meiburg proves to be just as adept at writing about the people he's encountered along the way. Skillfully researched and beautifully written, Meiburg's debut is a most remarkable book.
Michael Schaub is a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Texas.
A Most Remarkable Creature
By: Jonathan Meiburg.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 384 pages, $30.