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Wild falcons are as smart as parrots and eager to show it

A new study of wild falcons’ problem-solving abilities led by researchers at the Messerli Research Institute has revealed remarkable insights into avian intelligence. 

These birds, particularly the striated caracaras in the Falkland Islands, showcased their adeptness at solving food puzzles, challenging common perceptions of their cognitive abilities.

Unexpected level of intelligence 

Lead author Katie Harrington expressed her team’s surprise at the falcons’ proficiency in these tasks. “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.” 

Harrington’s enthusiasm highlights the unexpected level of intelligence displayed by these birds.

Wild falcons are naturally curious

The study’s design involved a transparent plastic puzzle box placed on the grass, offering the caracaras a chance to interact and solve it. Each bird was limited to one attempt per day, allowing the researchers to track their learning curve. 

Harrington described the birds’ keen engagement with the puzzles. “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,” she reported. This eagerness exemplified their natural curiosity and desire to interact with new challenges.

Strategic problem-solving 

Moreover, the caracaras’ methodical approach to the puzzles was noteworthy. “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,” she explained. 

This detailed exploration underlines the birds’ strategic and comprehensive problem-solving methods.

Broader implications 

Senior author Megan Lambert emphasized the broader implications of these findings for understanding avian intelligence. 

“Much of what we know about avian intelligence comes from parrots and corvids,” she said, pointing out the gap in research concerning birds of prey like caracaras. “These caracaras face a lot of the same pressures and offer a really great opportunity to study cognition in the wild.” 

Lambert’s insights suggest that these findings could reshape how scientists view the intellectual capabilities of various bird species. This is especially true for those in the wild.

Significance of the study 

The researchers’ discovery that caracaras are “just as capable as parrots” in problem-solving adds a new dimension to the study of avian intelligence. 

Wild falcons are often thought of as less cognitively advanced. The fact that they are likely as intelligent as parrots opens up new avenues for exploring how problem-solving abilities have evolved in birds.

Thus, this study — published in the journal Current Biologynot only enriches the understanding of caracaras but also contributes significantly to the broader field of animal cognition.

Caracaras of the Falkland Islands

Caracaras in the Falkland Islands are fascinating and unique birds of prey, playing a significant role in the archipelago’s ecosystem. The most commonly found species there is the striated caracara, also known locally as the Johnny Rook. 

These wild falcons are distinguished by their bold and curious nature. They often approach humans without hesitation, a trait unusual for birds of prey.

Caracaras’ diet

Adapted to the island’s environment, caracaras in the Falklands exhibit a diverse diet. They are known to be opportunistic feeders, consuming everything from insects and carrion to stealing eggs and preying on small birds. This adaptability is crucial in the harsh and variable conditions of the islands.


The Falkland Islands provide an ideal habitat for caracaras, with vast open spaces and a lack of natural predators. This has led to a stable and healthy population of these birds on the islands, unlike in other regions where their numbers have declined due to human activities.

Iconic symbol 

Interestingly, the caracaras have become an iconic symbol of the Falkland Islands’ wildlife. Ornithologists and tourists alike love observing these unique birds in their natural habitat.


Their role in the island’s ecosystem is vital. As scavengers, caracaras help in cleaning the environment by consuming carrion. They are also an integral part of the local culture and heritage. Caracaras’ presence is deeply intertwined with the history and natural landscape of the Falklands.

More about wild falcons

As discussed above, falcons are a group of birds of prey, belonging to the genus Falco. These birds are known for their incredible speed, sharp talons, and keen eyesight. They inhabit a wide range of environments, from Arctic tundra to tropical rainforests, showcasing their adaptability.

Characteristics and behavior

Falcons have tapered wings and a robust body structure. This helps in their ability to dive at high speeds to catch prey. This diving behavior, known as a stoop, allows them to reach speeds over 200 mph, making them among the fastest creatures on the planet.

They primarily feed on other birds, small mammals, and insects. Their sharp beak, characterized by a notable ‘tooth’ on the upper mandible, helps them kill and dismember their prey.

Breeding and nesting habits

Falcons typically nest on high cliffs or, in urban areas, tall buildings. They do not build traditional nests; instead, they lay eggs in a scrape, a small depression in soil or gravel.

During breeding season, both male and female falcons participate in raising the young. Males are primarily responsible for hunting and providing food.

Conservation status of wild falcons

While some falcon species, like the Peregrine Falcon, have rebounded from the brink of extinction thanks to conservation efforts, other species remain endangered.

Threats to falcons include habitat destruction, pollution, and climate change. Conservation initiatives often focus on habitat preservation, reducing pesticide use, and protecting nesting sites.

Falcons in Culture and Falconry

Falcons hold a significant place in many cultures, symbolizing speed, focus, and freedom. Falconry, the practice of training falcons to hunt, dates back thousands of years and continues to be a popular sport in many parts of the world. This ancient tradition has also played a role in falcon conservation, as it raises awareness about these majestic birds and their importance in the ecosystem.

In summary, wild falcons, with their unmatched speed and agility, are fascinating creatures. Their survival and thriving in the wild are vital not only for biodiversity but also for the cultural heritage associated with these majestic birds. Conservation efforts and sustainable practices are essential to ensure that future generations continue to witness the awe-inspiring flight of the wild falcons.

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