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Laughing Kookaburra
Dacelo novaeguineae


Most of us know only too well the distinctive sound of the Kookaburra, it is usually the first to wake us up, and the last of the bird calls heard at sun down. It tilts its head upwards and the tail moves up and down when making this distinctive sound. Early settlers are said to have been very unnerved by this laugh in the forest, probably not knowing at first what made it.

According to an Aboriginal legend that captures the imagination, the kookaburra’s famous chorus of laughter every morning is a signal for the sky people to light the great fire that illuminates and warms the earth by day. This familiar and glorious cacophony when dawn is just breaking and often the last bird calls heard as the sunsets, is to advertise to all the territory of this great bold bird.

The Laughing Kookaburra is found on the east coast of Australia living in open forest, woodlands, and often seen in suburban gardens, but also south east SA with introduced colonies in southern WA and Tasmania, living in open forests, Eucalypt woodlands and often seen in suburban parks, gardens, picnic grounds, schools and caravan parks due to human feeding. It is the largest of the Kingfisher family that has more than 80 species the world over, Australia is home to 10 species, the Laughing Kookaburra being one.

Plumage of both adults is similar except for the male having extensively more flecked blue feathers on the lower back and tail. Their large heads are off white marked with a dark brown stripe thru each eye to the center crown, mantle and wings dark brown, flecked light blue over shoulders, lower back and rump russet brown/black and tail same russet color with black bands. Under parts entirely off white and faintly gray down the flanks, eye deep brown, cream/bone colored large beak, feet olive/cream and claws dusty. They have 3 toes forward and 1 backward with the 2nd and 3rd toes joined for most of their length. The fused toes help them in excavating nests, but make walking almost impossible so they hop/jump when on the ground. Big cumbersome chicks are born bulging eyes closed, gray/bluish skin all over slowly developing pin feathers, big heads, beaks and feet. They are completely helpless and dependant on their parents (Altricial)

Kookaburras form permanent pairs, are very good parents and take so long to rear their young to independence that more than one clutch per seasons is unlikely. Breeding is September-January and after a short courtship to renew their bond they clear out their nest usually situated in the hollow of a tree or any cavity large enough for the adults such as a termite mould (so once again leave those old limbs and hollows on trees), the nest will have a flattened entrance hole so that the chicks can reverse backwards and excrete over the side. They lay 1-4 white rounded eggs, incubation is 24 days by female and other group members, as is feeding and parental duties. Fledging takes approx. 5 weeks with the babies grabbing any food that is brought into the hollow often attacking, sometimes fatally, the youngest chick. After they begin to fly the fledglings are fed by the adults of the group for up to 13 weeks and instead of being forced out of the territory, most stay to help their parents defend boundaries and protect further offspring.

The Kookaburra rarely eat fish as one might assume from its Kingfisher name, nor do they drink much water, being like raptors (birds of prey like eagles, owls) and getting most of their moisture from the blood of their prey. Apart from that they are not selective feeders, eating a high protein live diet of small snakes, lizards, rats, mice, snails, worms, grasshoppers, crickets, cicadas, beetles, caterpillars, ants, yabbies & crayfish, spiders, frogs, the odd small bird, various insects and invertebrates. They watch in silence from a vantage point in a tree, and then swoop down to catch the prey. They kill their prey by holding it in their strong beak, and beating it against a tree branch.

In favorable conditions they can live up to 20 years old or more, their birth rate is low to keep pace with the slow death rate and population turn over is very slow. (Although with car collisions, window collisions and barb wire entanglement their numbers are decreasing faster than ever before). Kookaburras are family oriented birds. Their groups usually consist of one dominant breeding couple, other adult non-breeding birds (who share the load with incubation, baby sitting, feeding, teaching skills necessary for survival and defending territory boundaries), immature birds from previous broods and juveniles .The adult non-breeding birds can be male or female, but not necessarily, progeny of the dominant pair. They co-exist in a strict hierarchy. The group is maintained in this order whilst the non-breeding adults are content to remain in their position in this order. As soon as non-dominant birds decide to challenge for a change in the status quo they are either subdued or forced to leave the group – the latter is most often the case.

This bird is great to have around as it will catch introduced pests such as mice, a good reason to use traps and not rat bait if you are experiencing an influx of mice. Many native animals die due to rat bait, they will not necessarily eat the bait, but they will most certainly eat a dying mouse or rat thus ingesting the poison. As wildlife carers we get a variety of native animals in to care that have ingested poison in this manner, unfortunately in most instances it is too late to save these animals. Please consider the alternative use of traps, I know it can be unpleasant, but please consider the long term effect for not only Kookaburras, but all the native species that eat mice and rats. They are in fact our best pest control.

It can be tempting to feed these birds, but the problems with this practice are many, the wrong food is often provided thus resulting in the birds suffering from dietary deficiencies, deformed young, spreading of disease, overpopulation of particular species. They need whole live foods to get the calcium, proteins, minerals and fluids that they need to sustain healthy growth.

Alternatives if you wish to have more bird life in your garden, plant native plants, this will encourage the birds into your garden without upsetting the natural balance. Put a birdbath in a shady spot in the garden, remember to clean it regularly as with everything when you have a lot of different species using it, it need to be clean so as not to spread disease.

Create a compost spot in the garden; it will attract insects, thus giving birds such as Kookaburras a natural food source.

Animal lover and wildlife watcher Colleen from Casino has contacted WIRES numerous times in the past when she has found native animals or birds in distress. Recently, she told us about an unusual visitor to her garden -- an albino kookaburra. The kookaburra visited her garden sometimes with a family group but was often on its own.

Kookaburras are terrestrial tree kingfishers. The name is thought to be a loanword from Wiradjuri guuguubarra, a word that sounds like the bird's call. Kookaburras live in family groups but it is common for many species to shun members of their groups who are different because their unusual appearance can attract predators. These individuals are likely to be lonely and struggle to find food on their own.

Albinos usually have pale eyes and poor eyesight: those active during the day are inhibited in their ability to find food and avoid predators. Casino's bird is mostly white but has slight colouration and its eyes are dark and its eyesight is very good.
Our Casino albino is doubly fortunate: Colleen reports that another kookaburra has become a companion so hopefully they are now a pair. It will be interesting to see if any offspring are hatched and whether they will have the unusual colouring.

Kookaburras eat lizards, snakes, insects, mice and small birds. The most social birds will accept handouts from humans and will even take raw or cooked meat from or near open-air barbecues left unattended. It is not advised to feed birds meat as it does not include calcium and other nutrients essential to maintain their health. Remainders of mince on the bird's beak can fester and cause serious health problems.




Images above by Sharon McGrigor, Allira Cornell & Alicia Carter & Melanie Barsony and Anom

Reference: Field Guide to the Birds Of Australia
Simpson & Day
Every Australian Bird Illustrated, Rigby




Updated March 2021  

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