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What is a Kookaburra?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Kookaburras, known formally as Dacelo novaeguineae, are members of the kingfisher family and native to the forests of South and Eastern Australia. The bird is an iconic figure in Australian ornithology, and many Australian writers discuss the kookaburra and its distinctive call in their work. The bird is also known as the “Bushman's Clock” or "Laughing Jackass" because of its song, which resembles derisive laughter. As kookaburras are quite gregarious and wake up early in the morning, the forest can be filled with their loud calls back and forth to each other. The birds have a squat, friendly appearance which is quite endearing, and often leads people to feed them and offer shelter, a decision which is sometimes later regretted.

The name “kookaburra” is an Aboriginal onomatopoeia for the way the birds sound when they call. Kookaburras grow to be about the size of ravens, rarely exceeding 17 inches (43 centimeters) in height with dense, stocky brown and white bodies and long beaks. During the nesting season, the parents build the nest and incubate the eggs together through the 25 day incubation period, and both bring food to the nestlings for the month long period before they are able to fly. For one month after fledging, the parents will feed their young before expecting them to support themselves.

Like other forest kingfishers around the world, kookaburras do not actually fish. The birds are carnivorous and eat small vertebrates, insects, and sometimes other birds. They have also been known to steal food from picnics and barbecues, even if only left unattended for a moment. Because of their tendency to prey on young birds, some Australian farmers have a contentious relationship with kookaburras, who are quite fond of ducklings and chicks. Kookaburras build nests made out of mud and sticks in the trunks of slightly rotted trees or termite mounds, and prefer to nest in enclosed areas deep inside the forest for better protection.

Kookaburras are long-lived birds, with a life expectancy of up to 20 years, and they form large social flocks which often include multiple generations of children. It is not uncommon for older siblings to look after the younger generation for several years before finding mates themselves, and the families live together in a fixed forest location, rather than migrating. The loud call of kookaburras serves both as a method of communication and as a way to stake out territory, indicating that the space is not open to colonization by other birds.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By PinkLady4 — On Nov 12, 2011

The kookaburra is such an interesting bird. It has a lot of similar attributes to humans. They are quite a social species and like to communicate and laugh a lot. We humans are definitely that way! They take care of their young for a longer period than most birds, and the older siblings sometimes care for the younger ones. They also seem to like a well constructed nest, the way we like our houses.

They tend to have the extended family living close together, like humans prefer. For a bird, their lifespan is quite long. Strange how a bird and human could be so much alike.

By Misscoco — On Nov 12, 2011

@LisaLou - I too learned the kookaburra song back in elementary school. I loved to sing it. Every once in a while I still sing it to myself - the tune is lively and the lyrics are fun. I don't think my teacher taught us anything about the bird, like they would in schools today. So it was fun reading this article.

They sound like fascinating birds. I'm going to have to find out more about them. I would love to be in the forest and hear them kook ka ka-ing to each other early in the morning. My daughter is going to Australia in a couple of days. I'll have to ask her if she saw any kookaburras.

By ddljohn — On Nov 11, 2011

I saw a program about kookaburras on TV where they were showing how they live and various other kookaburra facts.

I agree with the article, these birds are so adorable! I love their colors. Their wings and eye areas are brown in color and the rest is white. They have the cutest, fluffy, white tummies! If it was possible to have them as pets, I would definitely adopt a few.

The program also showed how the kookaburras make their homes which was amazing. They would go to the ground, roll up mud with their beaks, take it in their mouth and fly up to their home. They put the rolls of mud and sticks next to each other and on top of one another in the shape of a cone. When the mud nest dried, it became hard, almost like clay.

I think these birds are fascinating. We humans must have learned how to build homes from them. And since they have to take the mud pieces one by one, it took them a long time to finish their nest. I can't believe how patient and hard working they are!

By geekish — On Nov 10, 2011

This article provides a great array of interesting facts about the kookaburra. I just have a few more facts that I remember from a science project I did back in middle school, that may help and be interesting to others as well.

The adult male kookaburra has a few blue and green tail feathers, while adult females do not.

The sound/call that kookaburra's make to let the rest of their surroundings know their territory sounds like this: "kook, kook, kook, ka, ka, ka".

While dating, the kookaburra's, especially the males, show they want a certain bird's attention by making particular sounds of vocalization, and by making a huge tree-top flying spectacle.

Kookaburra's who mate stay together for life, which I think is romantic! They also have close family ties, as the kookaburra's of one family all stay together from one mating season to the next mating season, October, which is Australia's spring. The families usually stay close by, although they do not always live in the same tree all together for life.

By bluespirit — On Nov 10, 2011

@LisaLou and myharley - I, too, remember this song. I don't remember it as well as you all seem to, but whenever I hear someone mention a kookaburra, this song is the first thing that comes to mind. I can not remember the exact lyrics, but I remember the tune quite well.

Kookaburras are very cute birds, although I have not had the pleasure of seeing them in person. I have only seen pictures, and they do look rather adorable.

The kookaburra's laughter-like sounding call seems pretty hilarious, but it doesn't seem like it would be quite as funny if you had to hear it on a regular basis, especially in the wee hours of the morning!

This article really makes me want to travel to Australia, not only to see their interesting animals unique to their country alone, but also to check out aboriginal life and the rest of what is special/beautiful about Australia.

By myharley — On Nov 09, 2011

@LisaLou - Yes, this bird really does exist. The Australian kookaburra is something I saw often on my trip to Australia a few years ago.

I also remember this song from childhood about the laughing kookaburra. When you hear their song it really does sound like someone laughing. The effect is even greater when there is more than one of them.

They aren't very big birds, but are really cute and it is amazing that such a sound can come out of such a little body.

I was able to get several close pictures of them in their natural environment when I was there. I also bought a kookaburra toy for my granddaughter that made the laughing sound when you pushed its stomach.

I think I got more enjoyment out of it than she did!

By LisaLou — On Nov 09, 2011

I remember singing a kookaburra song way back in elementary school. It's funny how a song like that can stay in your head for all these years.

It had a catchy tune and I still remember the lyrics how "kookaburra sits in the old gum tree, merry, merry king of the bush is he, laugh kookaburra, laugh kookaburra" etc.

I don't know if my kids ever learned this song or not, but when I was growing up I know our music teacher taught this song in all of his classes.

Now, many years later, it is interesting to read about the history of this kookaburra bird and that it really does exist.

By anon178490 — On May 21, 2011

This article was very helpful for my school project. --Joshua

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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