In the bird world, parrots and crows have earned a reputation for being highly intelligent. Birds of prey, meanwhile, are usually seen as less mentally sophisticated, since they specialize at hunting.
But new research suggests otherwise. Striated caracaras—large, dark-colored falcons that live on the outer Falkland Islands and the southern tip of South America—are good at solving problems, according to a new paper published last week in the journal Current Biology.
“They are constantly probing and exploring,” says study lead author Katie Harrington, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna who runs the Johnny Rook Project in the Falklands, to Psychology Today’s Mary Bates. “They are like little scientists, walking around and testing their environment all day long.”
Researchers wanted to know how striated caracaras, which also go by the nickname “Johnny rooks,” stacked up in smarts compared to other brainy birds, so they tested the falcons with adapted tasks originally designed for parrots called Goffin’s cockatoos.
The tests—which are conducted with a transparent, plexiglass, octagonal puzzle box—require the birds to solve various problems to get a bit of meat. To access a treat, the birds must do things like lift a cup, slide a door laterally, punch through a paper window or pull a wire.
Scientists tested 15 striated caracaras that had no prior training on the puzzle box. All of them solved at least one puzzle, and ten of the birds successfully completed all eight tasks. They also got faster at solving the puzzles with repeated exposures. One bird, after practicing, was able to complete all the challenges within about five minutes.
Some of the caracaras worked out solutions to the more difficult tasks, which less than half of Goffin’s cockatoos figured out during repeated tests in past studies, per Nature News.
The falcons were so curious about the puzzle box that researchers had to keep them away while others were completing the tasks—which hints at their innate curiosity. They were so eager to solve the puzzles that “some even started running toward the box as soon as we set it on the ground,” says Harrington to the Daily Mail’s Shivali Best.
“They’d then energetically kick and pull at different functional parts the same way we would grab something to learn how it works,” she adds. “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.”
Scientists think Johnny rooks evolved their intelligence as an adaptation to their harsh, isolated habitat. They have plenty of food available during the South American summer, when seabirds nesting on the islands can become prey. But in winter, their food supply is much scarcer—and they likely have to get creative to survive.
The researchers are not the first to wonder about striated caracaras’ intelligence. Famed English naturalist Charles Darwin encountered them in the 1830s when he visited the Falklands as he circumnavigated the globe aboard the HMS Beagle. He noted that caracaras had a penchant for stealing his crew’s belongings, including a black hat and a compass.
More recently, the birds intrigued author Jonathan Meiburg, who in 2021 wrote a book exploring their evolutionary history called A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of The World’s Smartest Birds of Prey.
“They are just an incredible example of the flexibility of the world of birds to produce different kinds of minds and intelligences,” Meiburg told the Current’s Matt Galloway in 2021.
In the future, the scientists hope to conduct further experiments with the birds. They want to retest the caracaras on the puzzle box a year from now to see how much they remember; they also hope to explore problem-solving differences between the individual birds, as well as study whether the animals can learn from each other.
The findings show that researchers have much more to figure out about striated caracaras. And, more broadly, they suggest it’s worthwhile for scientists to focus their attention on historically understudied birds, since recent research on cognitive abilities has examined only a fraction of the world’s species.
“I’m completely behind research that’s expanding, going to other bird groups beyond the corvids and the parrots,” says Rachael Miller, a behavioral ecologist at Anglia Ruskin University in the U.K. who was not involved with the project, to the New York Times’ Darren Incorvaia.