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Beyond the kookaburra’s laugh

The merry, merry king of the bush most famous for its laugh, the Kookaburra is one of the most popular birds in Australia. Read on to get to know more about this native Australian animal.

Kingfisher family

Kookaburras belong to the kingfisher family. They have large, squarish heads; long, sharp, pointed bills; and short legs. Growing between 28 to 42 centimetres in length and weighing around 300 grams, the kookaburras are the largest of the kingfishers. Their beaks are quite large too at around eight to ten centimetres.

What's in a name?

The name kookaburra is derived from Australian Aborigine word guuguubarra which mimics the sound that this bird makes.

Diet

No, they don’t eat gumdrops while they sit on the old gum tree. Kookaburras are carnivorous like the rest of the kingfisher family. But, unlike most kingfishers which mainly subsist on a diet of fish and other aquatic animals, kookaburras prefer to eat lizards, rodents, insects, and even snakes.

To hunt, they perch atop trees, patiently wait for their prey, and swoop down to catch it with their large beak. Their pretty large beak is very helpful as they like to swallow their prey whole. For larger preys, they bash them against the ground or a tree to make the meat more tender and break up the bones before eating them whole. They may not make it to the list of scary Australian animals, but they sure are scary for their prey!

Habitat

Kookaburras are native to Australia, New Guinea, and Aru Islands in Indonesia. They live in eucalypt forests, tropical and subtropical open woodlands, and grasslands. They can also be found in clearings, farmlands, and gardens.

Kookaburra species in Australia

Of the four species of the kookaburras, two can be found in Australia--the laughing kookaburras, and the blue-winged kookaburras.

Laughing kookaburra

The laughing kookaburra got its name from its distinct laughter-like call that has become familiar around the world because of its use as jungle sound effects in movies and tv shows.

Laughing kookaburras, sometimes called laughing jackass are native to Eastern Australia although they have been introduced to Western Australia.

Compared to all other kookaburras, the laughing kookaburra has a more subdued colour with mostly dark brown upper part, reddish-coloured tail with black bars, and a mottled pale blue patch on its wings.

The female kookaburra is slightly larger than the male.

Blue-winged kookaburra

The blue-winged kookaburras are native to Northern Australia. They are slightly smaller than the laughing kookaburras but they have a longer bill

They are a bit more colourful with their brighter blue wing plumage. You can tell males from females by the colour of their tails. Males have blue tails while females have reddish-brown tails with blackish bars.

They also make loud calls like the laughing kookaburra but the sound they make is more like a cackling scream. That’s how they got their nickname howling jackass.

Behaviour

“Laugh, Kookaburra. Gay your life must be!” So goes the nursery rhyme. But the laughing or howling of the kookaburras has little to do with their moods. When they go into a chorus, they are trying to tell everyone else “to stay away from our territory”. These early morning and after sunset calls have earned them another moniker as the bushman’s clock.

It might not make sense for us with untrained ears, but they also make other calls to mean different things like for courtship, to warn others, beg for food, show aggression and others.

Kookaburras are monogamous and live together as a family with two adults plus the offsprings from the previous breeding seasons. They breed once a year. The female lays three to four eggs which she incubates for around 26 days.

The older siblings which stay with their family for three to four years will help their parents in taking care of the new chicks and defending their territory. The family will use the same nest to raise their young year after year.

Kookaburras are active during the day.

Laughing kookaburras are tame. Those living in the urban and suburban areas won’t mind eating out of a person’s hand. On the other hand, blue-winged kookaburras are quite shy.

Bonus facts

Kookaburras can live for around 15 to 20 years. So far, kookaburra’s conservation status is still under least concern, although there are existing threats to its survival brought about by habitat destruction.