AKA Laughing Jackass, Giant Kingfisher
Order: Coraciiformes – kingfishers, bee-eaters, rollers, hornbills, and others
Family: Alcedinidae - kingfishers
Scientific Name: Dacelo novaeguineae
Description: The laughing kookaburra is the world’s largest kingfisher. It is 15 ½ - 16 ½ inches in length with a long, straight beak and short legs. The head is white with a dark brown crown and eyeband, and there is a dark patch on the nape. The upperparts are dark brown and the underparts are white. There is a small blue patch on the rump, and some wing feathers have bluish-white tips. The tail is banded with black. The upper mandible of the beak is brown-black, and the lower mandible is ivory-colored. The legs are pale green to gray. Females are larger than males, and have less blue on the rump. Juveniles are darker and more barred than adults.
Home Range: Eastern and southwestern Australia; also introduced to Tasmania and New Zealand.
Habitat Type: Forest and woodland, farmland, city parks, and suburban gardens.
Reproduction: Kookaburras form life-long pair bonds. They usually nest in a natural hollow in a tree, or they may excavate their own nest cavity in a dead tree or arboreal termite nest. A pair may use the same nest for several years. Eggs are laid in the spring (September-December in the southern hemisphere). The eggs are white and slightly glossy, and there are 1-5 (usually 3) eggs per clutch. They begin incubation with the laying of the first egg, and incubate for 24-29 days. The hatchlings are blind and naked. They have a sharp hook at the end of their beak, which they use to attack their siblings. Most often, the last chick to hatch is killed by its larger siblings. This may be an adaptation to increase the chances of the older chicks surviving when food is scarce. The chicks attempt their first laugh when they are 6 weeks old, and require another 6 weeks to perfect it. They fledge when they are 5-6 weeks old. They are mature at one year but usually do not breed right away. Most young females stay with the parents for 1-2 years, and males stay 2-4 years. They will help to raise the next clutch of chicks, helping with incubation duties and then brooding, feeding, and defending the chicks along with their parents.
Diet in the Wild: Small prey such as earthworms, snails, crabs, crayfish, insects or other arthropods, fish, frogs, lizards, snakes, and occasionally nestling birds or small mammals. They kill snakes up to one meter (3.3 feet) long by gripping them behind the head and beating them on the ground or on a perch, sometimes dropping them from a height to stun them first. They also take scraps at picnic areas (right off the Bar-B-Q), and have been seen stealing prey from hawks or snakes. Undigested food is regurgitated as a pellet.
Diet in the Zoo: Bird of prey diet, and diced rat pups
General Information: The kookaburra’s call is one of the most familiar sounds of the Australian bush. It is heard most often at dawn and dusk, when groups announce themselves with loud, laughing choruses. The call is composed of five different elements, which individuals mix and repeat to form their own sequences, usually with a loud repeated “Hahaha” in the middle. The laugh is used to defend territories, guard mates, and maintain the status of breeding pairs over their younger “helpers”. When given alone, a short “Kooa” call warns others that birds of prey are near.
Kookaburras are highly territorial, and each pair maintains their territory year-round. A breeding pair may be accompanied by up to five offspring, who participate in choruses and help to defend the territory from intruders. The group members feed separately, but they keep within sight of each other. They roost together in dense foliage at night.
The name “kookaburra” comes from the language of the aboriginal Australians, who gave the species special status in their myths and fables. According to one story, there was no light and dark at the beginning of the world – just a gray twilight. When the gods made the day and night, they appointed the kookaburra to be the sentinel of the day, waking people and animals each morning with its loud laughter. Early European settlers in Australia called it the “settlers’ clock”. In more recent times, the call of the kookaburra has been used as a jungle sound in movie soundtracks, despite the fact that the bird is not found in the jungle.
Conservation Status: Kookaburras are common across most of their range. They adapt well to human settlement.
Predators: Mainly birds of prey. Their nests are sometimes raided by other birds, mammals, snakes, and goannas.
Encyclopedia of Aviculture Vol. 3. 1977. A. Rutgers and K.A. Norris. Blandford Press, Poole. p.19.
Field Guide to the Birds of Australia. 1980. G. Pizzey. Princeton University Press, New Jersey. pp. 211-212.
Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 6. 2001. J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, and J. Sargatal. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. pp. 130-187, 202-203.