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Australian Birds - The Kookaburra

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 4

The kookaburra, like the kangaroo and the emu, is synonymous with Australia. Its raucous call, which is similar to a human laugh, is far-reaching and very distinctive. The call warns others of the boundaries of the birds' territory. One bird commences with a low chortle then the rest of the group join in with loud peals of raucous laughter.

The common name, kookaburra, comes from the Wiradjuri aboriginal group who used the term 'guuguubarra' to describe the sound of its call. The kookaburra is the largest of the kingfisher family. These large to very large birds are native to Australia and New Guinea. They belong to the genus Dacelo. Kookaburras are found along the east coast of Australia, in New Guinea and on the islands of both countries.


Aspects Common to all Kookaburra Species

Kookaburras are territorial. They state their claim to an area by making a loud, human-sounding call referred to as a 'laugh'. This occurs mostly in the early morning and around dusk. Groups often call as a chorus to indicate their ownership of a territory.

The flight is heavy and direct. After landing on a bough or any other object, the tail is raised.

The kookaburra is carnivorous. Lizards, snakes, insects, rodents, small birds, raw mince and even cooked meat from a barbecue are all eaten with relish by the kookaburra. The kookaburra generally feeds by waiting patiently for prey to pass below then dives from above to pounce. It kills large prey by bashing it against a post or branch. Snakes or lizards may be dropped repeatedly from some metres above the ground until the spine is broken. Special care is taken when eating snakes. Food may be run back and forth in the beak to soften the whole before swallowing takes place. Indigestible bones and fur form pellets in the stomach and are regurgitated later.

Kookaburras breed annually. The nest, which may be 80 ft above the ground, is made in the hollow of a tree, in tree termite nests or in holes made in soft wood. The floor of the nest is generally lower than the entrance.

After mating, up to four eggs are laid. Both parents incubate and feed the chicks. In some species, siblings from a previous year or the adults in the group will help raise the young. Incubation takes about 25 days. The young chick is equipped with an egg tooth on the top of the beak to help in breaking out of the egg. The young are very aggressive when first born and may set upon and kill the smallest of the clutch. Food is swallowed, partly digested then regurgitated into the mouths of the chicks. By the time the chicks are one month old, they will be fully feathered and leave the nest soon after.


The Four Kookaburra Species

The four kookaburra species are:

  • Rufous-bellied kookaburra (Dacelo gaudichaud)
  • Spangled kookaburra (Dacelo tyro)
  • Blue-winged kookaburra (Dacelo leachii)
  • Laughing kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae)

The common name of the rufous-bellied kookaburra (Dacelo gaudichaud) is the laughing jackass. The species name 'gaudichaud' commemorates the French botanist Charles Gaudichaud-Beaupre.

Unlike the other species, the rufous-bellied kookaburra occupies dense rainforests and is widely found through the lowland forest of New Guinea. Individuals have also been recorded on Saibai Island off Queensland and on West Papuan Islands. It lives in pairs rather than in family groups.

This species has a large, square head, stout, squat body and a long, strong beak. The plumage is brown and white. Males have blue colouring in the tail feathers and the females have pale rust-coloured feathers on the belly and in the tail. It has a black cap, white beak and tinges of blue on the wings. Both parents incubate and feed the chicks.

The Spangled Kookaburra has the scientific name of Dacelo tyro.

It is also known as the Aru Giant Kingfisher or the Mantled Kingfisher. There are two subspecies, each of which is found in a specific area.

Spangled Kookoburra

* Dacelo tyro is found on the Aru Islands in the province of Maluku in eastern Indonesia
* D.t.archiboldi is found on the grasslands of southern New Guinea from the Bian River and Habe Island to the Wassi Kussa River and Dimississi.

The spangled kookaburra frequents grasslands and dense rainforests and is a very striking bird with bright blue wings and tail, a white chest and belly, dark-coloured eyes and a spectacular black head spangled with white. The rest of the body is a mix of brown and white. The body is stout and squat, the head large and the beak strong and straight.

Not much is known of the habits of the spangled kookaburra. Other kookaburras nest in hollows in trees and it is safe to assume the spangled kookaburra's habits are similar.

The blue-winged kookaburra (Dacelo leachii) commemorates the British zoologist William Elford Leach. It may also be known as the Barking or Howling Jackass, or Leach's Kookaburra. There are several subspecies.

Blue-winged kookaburra

It is found in southern New Guinea and in coastal and subcoastal areas across northern Australia from southern Queensland across the Top End and down the Western Australian coast as far as Shark Bay. It is not found between Broome and Port Hedland in north Western Australia.

Its preference is for moister areas and it lives in groups of up to a dozen birds. It frequents open savannah or woodlands, timbered watercourses, Melaleuca (paperbark) swamps, canefields and farmlands. It is sedentary with only some seasonal movement within its home locale.

The blue-winged kookaburra has a more maniacal cackle and is slightly smaller than the laughing kookaburra (Dacelo novarguineae). It measures between 38 and 42 cm long and weighs between 260 and 330 grams.

The head is square and the beak long and dark coloured on the upper surface and a yellowy colour underneath. The cream coloured head has brownish barring. The wings and rump are blue. The underparts are white with faint rusty-brown scalloped markings. The male has a dark blue tail and the female a dark-barred reddish or rufous tail. The eyes are basically brown for the first two years of life and then become very light coloured. There is no dark mask over the eye area. This species is shyer and quieter than the other species. As well as 'normal' kookaburra food, the blue-winged kookaburra eats crayfish and fish.

The laughing kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae) is found throughout eastern Australia. They have been introduced into the south-west of Western Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand. The blue-winged kookaburra has replaced this species in central northern and north-western Australia. In Queensland the two species overlap in some parts. This species is believed to pair up for life.

Laughing Kookaburra

It is handsome and stocky with a large, square head. It is an off-white below with faint dark brown barring. The back and wings are brown and the tail is a reddish-brown with wide black bars. There is a dark brown stripe across the eyes, which are prominent and brown. The beak is long and strong.

Kookaburras are common and listed as 'of least concern'. Kookaburras can become quite tame around humans and will take meat scraps from a friendly hand. Kookaburras are subject to predation by larger birds of prey. Quolls, goannas and pythons may raid the nests. The adults are slow in flight and are vulnerable to being hit by vehicles.

The kookaburra has found its way onto stamps and coins and its distinctive call has been used in all forms of media.


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Comments

Mar 30, 2011 12:09am
westernmom
I honestly didn't know the Kookaburra was such a beautiful bird!!! Thanks for writing!
Mar 30, 2011 12:17am
JudyE
Thanks for the comment. They were introduced into WA from the east and prey on our little birds - but they are pretty.
Mar 30, 2011 10:23am
tmoth
Great article, I know from experience that these birds will take a snag off the barbie when your back is turned, but I didn't realise that they are from the Kingfisher breed.
Mar 31, 2011 5:25am
JudyE
Thanks for the comment tmoth. We were at a caravan park and the parrots were flying in and sitting on our heads etc. and when we looked the other way, one calmly walked across the table and took a chip from under my husband's elbow. They're not stupid, are they?
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