So the story goes:
As the sun rose for the very first time, Baiame (creator god and Sky Father) wanted all to witness. He elected just the bird for the job.
After a raucous “GUU-GUU-BERR-AA-AA!!!”, everyone was awake.
When the people rose, sunlight met Earth. A display of warm hues blanketed the lands — for all to see, thanks to the laughing kookaburra.
This is the bird’s legend, as told by the Australian Aborigines. Today, the kookaburra’s name is onomatopoeic of this unique call. But it’s also referred to as the “Bushman’s alarm clock.”
Even if you’ve never been birdwatching in AU, chances are you’ve heard the kookaburra’s laugh. Recordings are often used in Australian films to create the perfect ambiance. You might even know the old nursery song, “Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree”.
Kookaburras are the largest members of the kingfisher subfamily. The largest of which is the laughing kookaburra, growing up to 19 inches long and weighing around 11 oz. It’s about 30x heavier than the African dwarf, which is the smallest kingfisher.
Due to their iconic calls, laughing kookaburras tend to make the most headlines. However, there 4 additional species that should not be overlooked.
Blue-winged kookaburras are decorated with deep to light blue feathers upon their wings. They are also distinguished by their pale ivory iris and strongly barred, dark and light brown tails. Unlike the laughing kookaburra, blue-wings don’t laugh — but are impressively audible, nonetheless.
Similarly, the spangled, rufous-bellied, and shovel-billed kookaburras don various blue feathers in their plumage. And you can probably guess each of these birds’ distinguishing features based on its name.
Like their kingfisher cousins, kookaburras have excellent eyesight. Ironically though, the chicks are born blind with their eyes sealed shut. It can take up to 3 weeks for the chicks’ eyes to fully open.
Rufous-bellied, shovel-billed, and spangled kookaburras are native to New Guinea, while the laughing and blue-winged are Aussies. Each of the 5 species reigns its own territory — for the most part. In Australia, there’s a slight overlap between the laughing and blue-winged region, making the two direct competitors.
It’s likely that the different species diverged and evolved in isolation. This would have occurred millions of years ago when New Guinea and Australia were further apart.
As the name suggests, kingfishers are normally associated with water. But the kookaburra is a terrestrial tree kingfisher, meaning it prefers wooded dwellings.
The ecosystems in which kookaburras are found range from humid forests to arid savannahs. They also frequent suburban locations — so long as tall trees and running water are still accessible.
Kookaburras are birds of prey. They feed on small mammals and rodents, including mice. Or frogs, lizards, snakes — even some that are venomous! Sometimes they snack on insects or the young of other bird species. They’ve even been seen crashing Aussie BBQs to score a chunk of grilled meat!
Different from most kingfishers, it’s not common for a kookaburra to eat fish. They are tree kingfishers, so instead, they perch on a branch waiting quietly for a terrestrial passerby. At an opportune moment, they swoop down to capture their prey. Kookaburras are masters of stealth.
Once the prey is seized, it’s beaten repeatedly against a hard object (like a rock). This kills it while tenderizing the meat for easier consumption. However, if the prey is small enough, it’s swallowed whole.
Even though the kookaburra call is comparable to a human laugh, it’s actually used as a warning. Kookaburras are highly territorial, and their calls (often performed in groups) are a means of setting boundaries.
Check it out — here’s the sound of a kookaburra’s call.
On the other hand, once you’re in with a kookaburra, you’re in. These birds are undeniably social and congregate daily for some sunrise and sunset chatter. Although, if you hear kookaburras calling mid-day, it’s said to be a sure sign of rain.
Kookaburras are monogamous and form strong bonds within their families. Partners team up to prepare for and raise their young. They build nests in tree hollows — sometimes even in termite mounds. The male guards their nesting space relentlessly.
The hatchlings are competitive and typically use their sharp bills to kill the youngest in the brood. However, as they mature, this behavior takes a complete 180. It’s common practice for kookaburra young to stick with their parents and help raise the next brood.
That being said, there are cases when kookaburras are rejected by their group simply for looking different. From then on, the outcasts conduct their hunting and other activities in solitude.