TGA–Johnny Rook

20 04 2010

File:Johnny Rook.jpg

Farmers must now obtain a licence if they wish to shoot or capture the Striated Caracara,

This bird is looking at you

if they feel it is endangering their livestook

Or would be if it were not captured inside the frame of a photograph.

The correct name for this carrion hawk is striated caracara (Phalcoboenus australis) but it has a ‘caw’-like sound, somewhat like the European rook which caused early settlers in the Falklands to give it the more familiar name.

This bird is a Striated Caracara, a Johnny Rook, a Phalcoboenus australis, a Forster’s Caracara

As I pondered my plight, curious ‘Johnny rooks’ swooped around me.

These creatures are scavengers of seabirds, sometimes predators of chicks, sometimes a consumer of dead, and perhaps injured, sheep and lamb.  Because of this, the straited caracaras were called pests [read verminous; read a threat to economic ventures].  In 1908 the Ordinance for the Destruction of Birds of Prey was passed by the government of the Falkland Islands and individuals bringing in killed members of this now official pest species were treated to a reward.

(think wolves, think thylacines, think nonhumans and humans in various times and places)

The greatest danger of existence lies in the fact that man only nourishes himself on souls

The active payment and slaughter ended @ 70 years ago, after the naturalist James Erik Hamilton called for a recognition of the threat to “one of the ornaments of the local avifauna.”  Striated caracaras are protected now.

Subject to the provisions of this Part, it is an offence for any person deliberately–

(a) to kill, injure or capture a wild bird.

But the name sheep-killer has not left them.

The gleam off their armor now in this bird’s

eye, as it flies towards me

And according to the recent (2007) report by Robin Woods of Falklands Conservation, their numbers are not increasing.

They were constantly flying on board the vessel when in the harbour; and it was necessary to keep a good look-out to prevent the leather being torn from the rigging, and the meat or game from the stern.


Jonathan Meiburg studied the biogeography of the striated caracara for his master’s thesis at the University of Texas Austin entitled: The biogeography of Striated Caracaras Phalcoboenus australis (published 2006).  This, of course, is why the dossier contains several gorgeous photographs of these birds and why I am writing about the here (rather than, for example, California quail).  These photos include an immature staring into the camera, an adult near a colony of rockhopper penguins, a captive adult with a metal ring holding the wire netting of an aviary and an absolutely beautiful photo of two adults sharing a meal with rocks and guano and and white and grey and blood.

the wind is howling from the southwest, straight off Antarctica, and the gusts are so high that they fling…wet sand against the tent like grapeshot

Johnny Rook is not explicitly named in the The Golden Archipelago–though the images pervade the Dossier.  Shearwater’s prior album, Rook, and the title song Rooks, is perhaps named after Johnny Rook, perhaps after the rook of Great Britain and continental Europe.  It was after this rook, of course, that the British named the straited caracaras they encountered.

In the way of new world quail being called quail after those in Europe, and robins after the cock robin of English gardens.  While rooks are corvids, caracaras are raptors, but so it goes.

Striated caracaras, particularly the young, are notoriously inquisitive and playful, traits that probably favour their survival in the harsh and resource-depleted winter environment of outlying islands

Meiburg was involved in two surveys with Robin Woods–1996-7 and 2006.  The goal was to find the birds and get an estimate of their numbers as well as to evaluate whether the population numbers were stable.  Robin Woods, whose photo is also in the Dossier, is a true field biologist, the founder of Falklands Conservation and a recipient of a Member of the British Order.

A true field biologist is something fundamentally different than a biologist of the academy, although he/she may, at times, be affiliated with the academy–there are a few such folks, Dan Janzen whose field work in Costa Rica is renown, for example, but the work is hard and rewards are generally the work itself.  There is no straight track–degree, post doc, faculty–that a person takes.  These people are in the field more often than not, in difficult physical circumstances, trouble-shooting problems we cannot imagine.  With a feeling for the organism whatever it may be, that is something more than pure intellect.

notoriously horrible stretch of water between Estados and the big island of Tierra del Fuego

I’ve noted in earlier blogs the presence of The Feuerland in the Dossier–this ship was renamed The Penelope, after Plüschow sold her, and she was the ship that carried the researchers to Isla de los Estados  in 1997.  In 2006, they traveled on The Condor, a craft that picked them up on Carcass Island.  One thing evident even in the 2007 report by Woods is the difficulty getting to the remote islands at the southern part of the world.  For their work in 2006, they had only November to survey the islands because of traveling constraints.  In 1997, I believe, though here I may be confused, the currency meltdown in Argentina and the demonstrations in Buenos Aires affected travel.  [I am confused because the timing is unclear.  Through the 1990’s, Argentina’s currency lost value, but it was in 1999-2002 that the crisis came to a head].

By this I mean whether or not travel occurred, not simple travel delays and inconveniences.

And apart from the difficulty of travel, there is the climate, down there in the roaring 50’s (54.5 deg. S, 64 deg W), and the sea.  Wind and ice and snow. There is also the terrain itself, rocky, tussocky and prohibitive of controlled survey work.

But the birds.  The striated caracaras are incredibly tame, curious and intelligent.  Here is Meiburg’s Looking for Johnny Rook Part 1, a video that includes footage of these birds:  link. (Parts 2 and beyond should pop up for you–watch them too, you’ll be glad you did).  Watching them I can understand developing a passionate obsession to learn more about them–more especially, because that is what interests me, about their behavior.

Here are some things that seem to be true about the striated caracara at least some of the time:

Annual adult mortality is 5% live; they can live at least 20 years

An average pair raises on 1.5 chicks annually

The mortality of chicks is up to 75%

Woods also asks why, despite the current protection, has the population not increased? He then includes a long list of what questions should be asked about this species, from behavior, to diet, to impact on sheep.  Because any of these things can affect population size–

And, as with many species, quite possibly some of the problem is because of words, of names (pest, sheep-killer).

the boldness and rapacity of these birds

The Ordinance for the Destruction of Birds of Prey.


More videos of these birds (notice the sound of the wind in the mic):  skua stealing and egg and caracara stealing it again, eating goose, calling pair, sharing pair


Quotes are from Charles Darwin, Emma Wood & Len Hill, Jonathan Meiburg, Jorie Graham, Robin W. Woods, Simone Weil, The Falkland Island Conservation of Wildlife and Nature Bill




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