The Striated Caracara, also called the Forster’s Caracara or the “Johnny Rook,” is a dark streaky falcon that’s found in the Falkland Islands and the far southern regions of Chile and Argentina. Striated Caracaras are opportunistic predators that prey on a huge variety of foods ranging from bugs to carrion to larger animals that they hunt in groups. Perhaps due to the need to successfully hunt a wide variety of prey items, these birds are shockingly intelligent.
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As the scholarship of avian cognition progresses, certain trends have emerged and have become relatively common knowledge. Even outside of birdwatching and ornithology-related hobbies, most people know that corvids are highly intelligent. Parrots are also widely known as smart birds with exceptional problem-solving skills. So, when a different species unexpectedly outperforms one of these well-known intelligent birds, it tends to make waves.
This is precisely what the Striated Caracara has done in a recent study by the Johnny Rook Project. The study presented wild Striated Caracaras with a battery of puzzle-based tests that have historically been used to examine the intelligence of Goffin’s Cockatoos. Many of the falcons that participated were able to solve puzzles they had never seen before with a relatively high degree of success. Furthermore, as the tests went on, the birds’ ability to reach solutions more than doubled and their problem-solving speed showed a marked increase as they became accustomed to participating.
In the end, the Striated Caracara’s showed a similar level of problem-solving and tool-usage proficiency to the Goffin’s Cockatoos, with the exception of a puzzle involving wire-pulling in which the falcons vastly outperformed their distant parrot cousins. Tool usage is often thought of as one of the main markers of superior intelligence in both birds and animals on the whole. It was once thought to be exclusive to primates, but there is a growing list of birds that have been recorded using tools both in the wild and in manmade experiments. Very few birds of prey have made this list, which begs the question, why is the Striated Caracara so intelligent?
Food scarcity has been proposed as a major contributor to the Striated Caracara’s puzzle prowess. Shortages of typical food sources during some seasons on the Falkland Islands mean that only the tough and the clever can obtain enough food to survive. This may have contributed to the opportunistic personality of the Striated Caracara. In any case, this unusual bird of prey has a unique knack for adapting to, and even embracing, new things. Wild birds are often difficult to study because they are wary of scientists and of tests. This is not so for Striated Caracaras. They are curious, bold, and drawn to novelty. This allows them to fearlessly take advantage of every possible avenue for survival on the Falkland Islands, but it may also have opened up new pathways for interacting with their environment and processing challenges.
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