Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg is a Bird Nerd


Here at Small Fish, Big Apple we love Shearwater. We really, really love them. Their new record "Rook" is on high rotate right now at the Small Fish, Big Apple Headquarters. If you don't know Shearwater then you can go here to check out a few songs.

Jonathan Meiburg from Shearwater (formerly of Okkervil River) is the subject of a fascinating interview in Scientific American this week, where he talks about field work he did studying the Striated Caracara in the Falkland Islands for his Masters degree at the University of Texas.
After graduating from Sewanee: The University of the South in Tennessee in 1997, Meiburg spent part of a life-changing year in Tierra del Fuego and the Falkland Islands off the coast of Chile and Argentina getting to know a species of bird related to the falcon called the striated caracara—or Johnny Rook, as British sailors dubbed it, thinking it resembled the crowlike rook. The experience did not just inform his music; it landed him in a graduate program at the University of Texas.

Meiburg speaks reverentially about striated caracaras, which he characterizes as social, curious scavengers. It's a subject that he seems to be more comfortable talking about than his music—partly because he's like a traveler who has seen remote habitats so unbelievable to us town folk that he feels personally charged with the task of sharing the sights he's seen.

Jonathan is a real Bird Nerd, and talks about how he gets to keep his inner nerd fed while also being a super cool touring rock star:
I take my binoculars with me and I enjoy sort of birding for the sake of it. Going to these types of places takes an extreme effort. It's not one that you can really make lightly or certainly not in the context of touring around with a rock band.

On this last tour though, we had a day off in Washington, D.C., and I went to the Smithsonian. I thought I'd just go the natural history museum and walk around. But when I walked in, I suddenly remembered that this guy, Storrs Olson, if he wasn't retired would still be there. He's like "Mr. Subfossil Bird Bones" (and a lot of other subfossil animals, but especially birds—and especially island birds). He had published a paper that I'd used in my thesis describing an extinct species of caracara from a tar seep in Cuba. He mentioned, in this one little sentence in the paper, bones from this very large, possibly flightless caracara from Jamaica, but doesn't provide any more description than that. I thought, "That's really interesting. He's talking about a flightless caracara, like a bird of prey that can't fly, but lived in Jamaica."

So, I went to the security desk and got [them] call to his office. He answered—and you have your 10 seconds—and I said something or the other about caracaras. And he said, "Okay, I'll be right down." So, he came down and he took me back to his office and we talked for about an hour and a half about island birds and extinct giant raptors. And he showed me the bones of this bird. His full description is in press right now. It's going to come out in the Journal of Raptor Research. So, I got to see the bones of this extinct, probably flightless caracara from Jamaica. It's just an unbelievable thrill to see things like that. I could have walked right by his office and never known that experience was potentially waiting for me.


  1. Cool story! I'm a big Okkervil River fan so I like this stuff too. "Girl in Port" is one of my favorite songs. Its awesome someone can be scientist and a working musician at the same time!

  2. Yeah - you don't often hear about high profile "artistic types" who also like to use the analytical parts of their brains. Or maybe they're just to shy to out themselves as geeks for fear of alienating the kids who buy their records...

  3. hm. I am a "kid who buys their records" and a biology student, too.