Skip to main content

Strong urge to explore in falcons

20.11.2023: Wild birds of prey from the remote Falkland Islands quickly learn to solve a puzzle with eight different food challenges - challenges they have never seen before - and they do it faster each time they try. These birds of prey, or more precisely, striated caracaras, show a capacity for innovation in their behavior similar to that of tool-using cockatoos, and are a very promising species to explore the evolution of intelligence in nature.

Striated caracaras are very curious birds of prey from the remote Falkland Islands that already attracted attention in Darwin’s time for their peculiar habit of searching for and exploring new things. Darwin’s crew spoke of their “boldness and rapacity,” and rightly so, after these birds stole and absconded with some of the expedition’s gear, such as a black hat and a red leather compass.

It is behaviors like these that caught the attention of scientists from the Comparative Cognition Unit at the Messerli Research Institute (Vetmeduni), who in collaboration with Laura Biondi from the National University of Mar del Plata, Argentina and the Johnny Rook Project, and funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) have studied striated caracaras in their natural habitat in the South Atlantic for several years. Recently, they wanted to know how these wild birds - who are in the falcon family yet behave very similarly to clever parrots and ravens - would behave when faced with a set of novel puzzles. This study would give us information about their capacity for innovation, that is, how flexible and adaptable they are in the face of new challenges.

“They were ace! We were really blown away by how quickly they set to the tasks and solved them. This is unlike anything we’ve seen before in wild birds of prey,” comments Katie Harrington, a cognitive ecologist and lead author on the study.

When you think about birds of prey, you don’t often picture a bird running at top speed toward a plastic box covered in games. But striated caracaras are different, and in a way, they turn the concept we had of birds of prey on its head. Johnny Rooks - as they’re called locally - are isolated on the Falklands, surrounded by ocean, strong winds, and an uncertainty about when and where they will find their next meal. They need to have a mindset that helps them solve all of these challenges.

“Striated caracaras have to be really exploratory, constantly examining new situations in their environment to find out what works for them. Is this food? What can I do with this? It takes a certain creative bravery to make life work on the Falklands,” Katie adds.

The authors allowed as many birds as possible under natural conditions to solve the puzzles, and each bird, one at a time, only had one chance per day (so they could see how the individuals improved with each attempt). “The caracaras were so eager to solve the puzzles that some even started running toward the box as soon as we set it on the ground. They’d then energetically kick and pull at different functional parts the same way we would grab something to learn how it works. They’d also move to look at the box from different angles, crouching down to look from below or jumping on top to look from above,” says Katie. “And the more they explored the puzzles, the better they got at them.”

After conducting a detailed analysis of the caracaras’ performance and comparing it with that of intelligent Goffin’s cockatoos (which faced the same tasks in a 2021 study), the authors found that this species of caracara was as capable as parrots. “There were some tasks the caracaras were even better at, most likely due to differences in their ecology,” added Megan Lambert, senior author who also specializes in parrot and corvid cognition. “Much of what we know about avian intelligence comes from parrots and corvids. These caracaras face a lot of the same pressures and offer a really great opportunity to study cognition in the wild.”  

The findings extend our knowledge of the conditions that may be necessary for the evolution of problem-solving abilities. In birds, inhabiting a variable environment with unpredictable resources could be the backdrop that encourages the mental flexibility necessary to find potentially beneficial solutions to new problems.


Scientific article


More information on our work on the Falkland Islands:

Video about the research