Freakishly Smart Falcons Run These Islands

If you heard there were faraway islands full of hyperintelligent birds, you would be forgiven for assuming that they must be parrots or crows — the superstars of the brainy bird world. But travel to the Falkland Islands near the Argentine coast, and you’ll find not parrots or crows but freakishly smart falcons called striated caracaras.

“I kind of had a hunch that there is something special about these birds,” said Katie Harrington, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna.

By adapting a series of tests originally designed to assess cockatoo cognition, Ms. Harrington found that the caracaras can problem-solve as well as parrots. The results were published Monday in the journal Current Biology.

Ms. Harrington leads the Johnny Rook Project, an effort to study the Falkland falcons that got its name from the birds’ local nickname. To compare the caracaras with other brainy birds, she adapted eight tasks from a prior experiment that studied innovative problem-solving in Goffin’s cockatoos.

Of the 15 Johnny rooks that Ms. Harrington tested, all solved at least one puzzle, and 10 of them figured out all eight — without any prior training.

“These caracaras actually solved tasks that some of the tool-using parrots couldn’t solve,” Ms. Harrington said.

Some animals are understandably skittish around scientists and their strange equipment, which can make testing their intelligence difficult. With the caracaras, Ms. Harrington had the opposite problem. “I had to literally run defense,” she said, keeping curious birds away while another was being tested with a plexiglass puzzle box that challenged the caracaras to pull, push, swipe, poke or do whatever else they needed to do to access tasty bits of meat.

Given how well they performed in this experiment, and their general boldness, striated caracaras represent a promising new model species for studying bird cognition. “They’re absolutely worth studying,” said Rachael Miller, a comparative psychologist at Anglia Ruskin University in England who was not involved with the research.

CreditCredit…Johnny Rook Project

Ms. Harrington suspects that caracaras evolved their cunning to cope with the tough life of the Falkland Islands, especially in winter, when curiosity and ingenuity could help a hungry caracara find a meal in lean times.Credit…Katie Harrington

Not many scientists have investigated the brainpower of falcons, which are closely related to parrots and crows, the most famous feathered geniuses. Ms. Harrington attributes this to their bird of prey label, which implies a simple lifestyle of “perch, hunt, sleep, repeat.” But those who spend time with caracaras quickly learn that they don’t have just meat on their minds.

“Falconers share these stories of how striated caracaras aren’t like the other birds that they’re trying to train,” she said. “You have to give striated caracaras dog toys to play with.”

Dr. Miller agrees that the bird world overemphasizes certain species — she found that recent studies of avian behavior and cognition have focused on just about 1 percent of 10,000 known bird species. “I’m completely behind research that’s expanding, going to other bird groups beyond the corvids and the parrots,” Dr. Miller said.

Ms. Harrington suspects that the caracaras evolved their cunning to cope with the tough conditions of life on the Falkland Islands. In the summer months, caracaras can feed on seabird colonies. But when those birds migrate in the winter, the falcons are “kind of like, out of luck,” Ms. Harrington said. Curiosity and ingenuity could help a hungry caracara find a meal in lean times.

Their daring ways have gotten the falcons in trouble with the sheep farmers of the Falklands. “They have historically faced persecution,” Ms. Harrington said. “There actually used to be a bounty on their beaks.”

These days, public perception has motivated legal protections for the birds. This is important because, while their brilliance may make them seem poised for world domination, striated caracaras have a limited range — they’re found only on the outer islands of the Falklands and Tierra del Fuego, at the southern end of South America.

Ms. Harrington wants to continue testing their powerful brains. She hopes to parse individual differences between the birds in how they tackle the puzzle box, and also retest some birds a year after the experiment to see how strong their memories are. And given how social caracaras are, Dr. Miller wonders if there’s a chance they could learn to solve problems by watching one another.

By studying the birds, “there’s this whole other door that we can open for comparative cognitive research,” Ms. Harrington said. Given their sharp claws and even sharper minds, don’t be surprised if these falcons figure out how to open that door themselves.

The birds are found only on the outer islands of the Falklands and Tierra del Fuego, at the southern end of South America.Credit…Katie Harrington
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