Kookaburra australian native birds

Native Australian Birds – The Kookaburra

The laughing Kookaburra is a bird species in the kingfisher subfamily Halcyoninae. It is a large, strong kingfisher with a whitish head & a brown eye-stripe. The upperparts are chiefly dark brown, but there is a mottled light-blue spot on the wing coverts.

The underparts are cream-white, & the tail is barred with rufous & black. The feathers of the male & female birds are similar. The territorial call is a unique laugh that several birds often deliver and is widely used as a stock sound effect in places that involve a jungle setting.

The laughing Kookaburra is a beautiful indigenous bird to eastern mainland Australia but has likewise been introduced to New Zealand, Tasmania, & Western Australia. It dwells in dry eucalypt forest, woodland, city parks & gardens.

This species is sedentary & occupies the same territory all through the year. It is monogamous, retaining the same mate for life. A breeding pair of birds can be accompanied by up to 5 mature non-breeding offspring from earlier years that help the parents maintain their territory & raise their young.

The laughing Kookaburra regularly breeds in unlined tree holes or excavated holes in termite nest in trees. The typical clutch is three white eggs. The parents & the assistants incubate the eggs & help feed the chicks.

The maturer siblings often kill the most youthful of the three nestlings or chicks. When the chicks fledge, they continue to be provided by the group for six to ten weeks till they can forage alone.

Kookaburra kingfisher native australian birds

A predator of a wide variety of small animals, the laughing Kookaburra, typically waits rested on a branch until it spots an animal on the ground & then flies down & dives on its prey. Its diet includes lizards, insects, worms, mice, snakes & it is known to take goldfish & other domesticated fish out of garden ponds and outdoor fish tanks.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified the laughing Kookaburra as a least concern species. It has a widespread range & population, with no widespread threats.

Kookaburra Kingfisher Classification

The laughing Kookaburra was first described & pictured (in black & white) by the French naturalist & pioneer Pierre Sonnerat in his Voyage à la nouvelle Guinée, in the year 1776. He alleged to have seen the bird in New Guinea. Sonnerat never visited New Guinea, & the laughing Kookaburra does not occur there.

He probably received a preserved specimen from one of the naturalists that accompanied Captain James Cook to Australia’s eastern seaboard. Edme-Louis Daubenton & François-Nicolas Martinet included a coloured plate of the laughing Kookaburra based on Sonnerat’s specimen example in their Planches enluminées d’histoire naturelle.

The plate has the myth in French “Martin-pecheur, de la Nouvelle Guinée” (Kingfisher from New Guinea).

Kookaburra kingfisher native australian birds

In 1783, the French naturalist Johann Hermann gave a formal description of the species based on the coloured plate by Daubenton & Martinet. He gave it the scientific title Alcedo novæ Guineæ.

The family of kookaburras you are currently reading about, Dacelo, was introduced in 1815 by the English zoologist William Elford Leach, & an anagram of Alcedo, the Latin name kingfisher.

The specific name novaeguineae combines the Latin Novus for new with Guinea, based on the mistaken belief that the specimen had originated of New Guinea. It was believed for years that the most initial description was by the Dutch naturalist Pieter Boddaert & his scientific name Dacelo gigas was used in the scientific article.

However, in 1926 the Australian ornithologist Gregory Mathews explained that Hermann’s description had been published beforehand in the same year, 1783, & thus had precedence. The mistaken impression of geographic distribution given by the title in current usage had not by 1977 been deemed an important enough matter to require a shift in favour of D. gigas.

Kookaburra kingfisher native australian birds

In the 19th century, this species was generally called the “laughing jackass”, a name first documented (as Laughing Jack-Ass) in “An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales” by David Collins, which was printed in the year 1798.

In the year 1858, the ornithologist John Gould used “great brown kingfisher”, a title coined by John Latham in 1782. Another well-known phrase was “laughing kingfisher”. European authors, including Go-gan-ne-gine listed the characters in several Australian indigenous languages by Collins in 1798, Cuck’anda by René Lesson in 1828 & Gogera or Gogobera George Bennett in 1834.

In the beginning years of the 20th century “kookaburra” was included as an alternative title in ornithological publications. Still, it was not until the year 1926 in the second copy of the Official Checklist of Birds of Australia that the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union officially used the name “laughing kookaburra””. The term originates from Wiradjuri, an endangered Aboriginal language.

The genus Dacelo includes four kookaburra species of which the rufous-bellied Kookaburra & the spangled Kookaburra are restricted to New Guinea & islands in the Torres Straits. The blue-winged Kookaburra & the laughing Kookaburra are both extensive in Australia.

Two subspecies are recognised:

  • D. n. novaeguineae (Hermann, 1783) – the topic of this article, east Australia, Tasmania & southwest Australian region.
  • D. n. minor Robinson, 1900 – Cape York Peninsula south to Cooktown

Kookaburra Kingfisher Description

The Australian native bird and laughing Kookaburra is the largest kingfisher. It is a strong, stocky bird 41–47 cm (16–19 in) in length, including a large head, prominent brown eyes, & a long & hardy bill. Although the female is usually larger & has less blue to the back than the male, the sexes are alike.

The female comes in at 190–465 g (6.7–16.4 oz), mean 352 g (12.4 oz) & The male weighs 196–450 g (6.9–15.9 oz), mean 307 g (10.8 oz). They have a white or cream-coloured body & head with a dark brown stripe across each eye & more faintly over the head’s top.

The wings & back are brown with sky blue spots on the shoulders. The hefty bill is black on top and bone-coloured on the bottom. The tail is rusty reddish-orange with dark brown bars & white tips on the feathers.

The laughing Kookaburra can be recognised from the similarly sized blue-winged Kookaburra by its dark eye, dark eye-stripe, smaller bill & the smaller & duller blue patches on the wing & rump. Male blue-winged kookaburras also vary in having a barred blue & black tail.

The Kookaburra Kingfisher Call

The title of “laughing kookaburra” refers to the bird’s “laugh”, which it uses to establish territory between family groups. It can be heard laughing at any time of daytime, but most commonly at dawn & dusk.

Laughing Kookaburra in an urban environment

One bird begins with a low, hiccuping chuckle, then throws its head back in raucous laughter: often numerous others join in. If a rival tribe is within earshot & replies, the entire family soon gathers to fill the bush with resounding laughter. The laughing chorus has five changeable elements:

1. “Kooa”; 2.Rolling, 3. “Cackle”, a rapidly repeated “oo-oo-oo”; 4. Loud “Ha-ha”; followed by 5. Male’s call of “Go-go” or female’s call of “Gurgle”. Hearing kookaburras in full voice are amongst the more extraordinary Australian bush experiences, something even locals cannot overlook; some visitors, unless cautioned, may find their calls alarming.

Kookaburra kingfisher native australian birds

Kookaburra Kingfisher Distribution & Habitat

The laughing Kookaburra is indiginus to eastern Australia & has a reach that reaches from the Cape York Peninsula in the north to Cape Otway in the south. It occupies both the eastern & the western sides of the Great Dividing Range. The range continues westwards from Victoria to the Yorke Peninsula & the Flinders Ranges in South Australia in the south.

It has been imported into many other areas probably because of its status for killing snakes. In December 1891, the Western Australian parliament listed ‘Laughing Jackass’ in the registry of strictly preserved Australian native birds in the Game Bill, led by Horace Sholl, member for North District.

He defined it as a native of the North West. Therefore, his nomination is unquestionably a listing to the blue-winged Kookaburra (Dacelo leachii), not the laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae). The Game Act, 1892 (Western Australia), “An Act to provide for the protection of imported birds & animals, & of native game,” provided that announced Australian native birds & animals listed in the First Schedule of the Act could be declared guarded against taking.

Laughing Jackass was one of the 23 Australian native bird species listed in the plan. Laughing kookaburras from the Eastern States was released near Mullewa in around 1896, & over the ensuing decade, 100’s of birds were imported from Victoria & released throughout Perth.

By 1912 breeding populations had been placed in several areas. The current range in Western Australia is southwest of a line joining Geraldton on the west coast & Hopetoun on the southern coast.

In Tasmania, the laughing Kookaburra was introduced to various locations starting in the year 1906. It now mainly occupies northeast of a line joining Huonville, Lake Rowallan, Waratah & Marrawah. It was introduced on Flinders Island in around 1940, where it is now extensive, & on Kangaroo Island in 1926.

In the 1860s, during his secondary term as governor of New Zealand, George Grey managed to release laughing kookaburras on Kawau Island. The island lies in the Hauraki Gulf, about 40 km (25 mi) north of the city of Auckland in New Zealand.

It was thought that the introduction had not taken place, but in the year 1916, some birds were discovered on the adjacent mainland. It now breeds in a tiny region on the Hauraki Gulf’s western side between Leigh & Kumeu.

The typical habitat is open sclerophyll forest & woodland. It is more prevalent where the understory is open & sparse or where the ground is covered by grass. Tree-holes are needed for nesting. The Kookaburra also occurs near wetlands & partly cleared areas or farmland with trees along roads & fences.

In urban or built-up populated areas, it is often found in parks & gardens. The laughing Kookaburra range overlaps with that of the blue-winged Kookaburra in an area of eastern Queensland which extends from the Cape York Peninsula south to near Brisbane in Queensland.

Around Cooktown, the laughing Kookaburra tends to choose sites near water while the blue-winged Kookaburra keeps to drier habitats.

Kookaburra kingfisher native australian birds

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Kookaburra Kingfisher Behaviour

Kookaburras occupy woodland regions (including forests) in loose family groups, & their laughter follows the same purpose as many other bird calls—to mark territorial boundaries. Most kookaburras varieties tend to live in family units, with offspring helping the parents hunt & care for the next generation of offspring.

Kookaburra Kingfisher Breeding

Juveniles have smaller bills with a dark underside & strong white on the wing & mantle feathers.

During the mating period, the laughing Kookaburra reputedly revels in behaviour comparable to that of a wattlebird. The female adopts a begging posture & vocalises like a young bird.

The male then offers her his recent catch followed with an “oo oo oo” sound. However, some observers report that the opposite happens – the female nears the male with her recent catch & offers it to him.

Nest-building may start in the month of August with a peak of egg-laying from the months, September to November. If the first clutch fails, they will resume breeding into the summer months.

The female regularly lays a clutch of three semi-glossy, rounded & white eggs, measuring 36 mm × 45 mm (1.4 in × 1.8 in), approximately every two days. Both parents & assistants incubate the eggs for 24-26 days.

Hatchlings are born in an underdeveloped state and need immediate care and feeding, fledging by day 32-40. If the food supply is not sufficient, the third egg will be more miniature, & the third chick will also be smaller & at a disadvantage corresponding to its larger siblings.

Chicks have a hook on the top mandible, which passes by the time of fledging. If the chicks’ food supply is not sufficient, the chicks will fight, with the hook being used as a weapon. Its larger siblings may even kill the smallest baby. If food is plentiful, the parent birds consume more time brooding the chicks, so they cannot fight.

Kookaburra Kingfisher Feeding

Kookaburras hunt as much as different kingfishers (or indeed Australasian robins) do, by landing on a convenient branch or wire & waiting patiently for prey to move by.

Typical targets include mice & similar-sized small mammals, a large variety of invertebrates (such as insects, earthworms and snails), yabbies, small fish, frogs, lizards, little birds & nestlings, & most famously, snakes. Small prey is favoured, but kookaburras sometimes take large animals, including venomous snakes, much longer than their own bodies.

Kookaburra kingfisher native australian birds

Kookaburra Kingfisher Relationship With Humans

Laughing kookaburras are a familiar sight in suburban gardens & urban settings, even in built-up areas, & are so tame that they will regularly eat out of a person’s hands. It is not unusual for kookaburras to snatch food out of people‘s hands without warning, by diving in from a distance.

People often feed them slices of raw & cooked meat. Laughing kookaburras are often kept in sanctuaries & zoos.

The Kookaburra is also the topic of a famous Australian children’s song, the “Kookaburra” recorded by Marion Sinclair in 1934.

Recordings of this bird have been added into Hollywood films for decades, usually in jungle environments, starting with the Tarzan series in the 1930s, more recently, in the movie The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997).

Kookaburra Kingfisher Conservation Status

The laughing Kookaburra’s population density in Australia ranges between 0.04 & 0.8 birds/ha depending on the habitat. Assuming on an average of 0.3 birds/ha, the total population may be as extensive as 65 million individuals.

However, this may represent an overestimation since the laughing Kookaburra population seems to be undergoing a marked decline as Birdata is showing a 50% drop in sightings from 2000 to 2019 and reducing the reporting rate from 25% to 15% over the same period.

The Kookaburra population in New Zealand is relatively small & is probably smaller than 500 individuals. Given the extended range & the large stable population, the species is evaluated as “least concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Kookaburra & Kingfisher Facts

Are kookaburras native to Australia?

Yes, Kookaburras are native to Australia and are quite prolific in areas of bushland and water. One species tends to live in dryer climates while another species lives in wetter climates with access to water and rivers.

Kookaburras are as much a symbol of Australia as red kangaroos & dingoes — & just like them, they’re not indigenous to Tasmania. The laughing birds were imported from mainland Australia by humans to try & reduce snake numbers.

Kookaburra kingfisher native australian birds

Why do kookaburras laugh?

Their unique “laugh” is actually telling other kookaburras to stay out of their territory. To let other kookaburras families know where their home territory is, a family of Kookaburras will “laugh” or call throughout the day, especially around dawn & dusk. Kookaburras have a lifespan of more than 20 years and have the same mate for life.

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Are kookaburras dangerous?

They are not dangerous to humans, most will keep their distance, but a few will become tame enough to eat out of a person’s hand if fed regularly. In the wild, Kookaburras are aggressive predators and carnivores that can deftly dive down to the forest floor and rivers in order to catch their food.

Where does a kookaburra live?

Kookaburras live in sclerophyll (Eucalyptus) woodlands & open forests & bush. They can dwell in almost any expanse with trees big enough to accommodate their nests & open patches with sufficient hunting territories.

Why do Kookaburras puff up?

When frightened, a kookaburra will try to fly away or will puff up its feathers to seem bigger & more threatening. The Kookaburras natural predators are cats & raptors.

Do Kookaburras kill other birds?

Kookaburras are unique because they exhibit two varieties of social behaviour — as older birds, they are unselfish in helping the parents to raise their offspring, but as chicks, they actively attempt to kill each other. This is an evolutionary survival instinct so that older offspring have the best chance of survival.

Kookaburra kingfisher native australian birds

Can I own a kookaburra?

Kookaburras are a bird species of kingfisher native to Australia & as a result, are subject to strict protection laws. In all states of Australia, they are a protected species, meaning it is against the law to remove them from the country or sell them.

Can you feed Kookaburras raw meat?

Kookaburras eat lizards, snakes, insects, mice and small birds. These birds are sociable and will receive handouts from humans and will even take raw or cooked meat from or near open-air barbecues left unattended. Remains of mince on the bird’s beak can decay & cause serious health problems. Such as beak rot. Other Australian native birds such as the magpie and the butcher bird can also suffer from this problem if fed too much meat.

Do Kookaburras kill snakes?

Snakes are a favourite meal of kookaburras, according to the Australian Reptile Park. If they see the prey, the Kookaburra dives down & snaps it up with its beak. Larger potential prey such as snakes is hit against trees & rocks to kill them, soften or break into tinier pieces before they swallow it.

Further reading


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