Class: Aves (Birds)
Body length: 15.4 to 16.5 inches (39 to 42 centimeters)
Weight: 6.9 to 16.4 ounces (196 to 465 grams), with female slightly heavier
Life span: 11 years in the wild, up to 15 years in zoos
Incubation: 24 to 29 days
Number of eggs laid: 2 to 3 by a dominant female; additional eggs (up to 5) are laid by female helpers
Conservation status: lower risk
Say it the way Australians do: “COOK-ah-burr-ah.”
• The laughing kookaburra was once known as the laughing jackass.
• Many people don't know that they have heard the laughing kookaburra’s song. The call has been used as a sound effect in jungle movies for many years, where it sounds like a group of monkeys!
• Since 1990, Australia has had a dollar coin known as the "silver kookaburra."
• The children’s song “Kookaburra (Sits in the Old Gum Tree)” was written in 1934 to the tune of a traditional Welsh song. In it, the kookaburra eats “gum drops”—eucalyptus sap—and spies on monkeys. However, kookaburras are carnivorous and monkeys are not found in Australia!
• The first hatching of laughing kookaburras in the Western Hemisphere occurred at the San Diego Zoo in 1961.
Listen to a laughing kookaburra!
Birds: Laughing Kookaburra
The plain bird with the fancy voice
The laughing kookaburra is the largest member of the kingfisher family and was once called the giant kingfisher. Most kingfishers are brightly colored—often blue or green—and many of them specialize in diving into streams and ponds to catch fish. The laughing kookaburra, however, is plainly colored and rarely eats fish! It has a light beige or white head and breast with brown wings and back. The head has a brown stripe like a mask crossing each eye. The beak is heavy and boat-shaped. The kookaburra’s breast has pale gray, wavy lines, and the outsides of the wings are speckled with pale blue dots. The male laughing kookaburra often has blue above the base of the tail. Both sexes have a rusty red tail with black bars and white tips. The female is slightly larger than the male.
The laughing kookaburra is one of four species of kookaburra (the other three are the blue-winged kookaburra Dacelo leachii, the spangled kookaburra Dacelo tyro, and the rufous-bellied kookaburra Dacelo gaudichaud ).
Good for a laugh
It may be fairly drab, but you won't think the laughing kookaburra is ordinary after it opens its beak! The laughing kookaburra is known as the “bushman’s alarm clock” because it has a very loud call, usually performed by a family group at dawn and dusk, that sounds like a variety of trills, chortles, belly laughs, and hoots. The call starts and ends with a low chuckle and has a shrieking "laugh" in the middle. The song is a way the birds advertise their territory. These birds are native to woodlands and open forests in Australia, where they perch in large trees and nest in cavities of tree trunks and branches. They keep the same territory year-round, and family groups gather together to announce the boundaries with their distinctive calls. Laughing kookaburras also have different, shorter calls used for finding others, courtship, raising an alarm, showing aggression, and begging for food.
But they don’t eat fish!
Even though they are kingfishers, laughing kookaburras eat more reptiles and rodents than fish. The birds also eat frogs and they are known to be bold and steal food from picnics, sometimes snatching hot meat straight from the barbeque! The parent birds often give small snakes to the chicks so they can learn how to kill prey.
When hunting, a laughing kookaburra sits motionless on a perch and watches for prey to pass by. The bird can keep its head perfectly still while its body sways with the branch below. When prey is sighted, the kookaburra swoops down, lands next to it, and grabs it with its bill. It carries the food back to a perch and beats it several times against the branch to kill and soften the prey. Snakes are sometimes dropped from midair onto the ground for tenderizing! The prey is swallowed head first and whole. Laughing kookaburras at the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo's Safari Park get mealworms, king worms, crickets, meat, minnows, and small mice for their diet.
It's nice to have help
A breeding pair establishes a year-round territory that is also used by four to five of its grown young that serve as helpers. They help by incubating the eggs, keeping the chicks warm, feeding their young siblings, and defending their parents’ territory. At about four years of age, the helpers leave to establish their own territories. Kookaburras can live 10 to 12 years in the wild, and they are not threatened or endangered.
Adult kookaburras pair for life and use the same nest hole, found in a tree trunk or arboreal termite nest, each year. Courtship starts by the male feeding the female about six weeks before she lays her eggs. The female lays two or three white eggs, often a day or two apart; in rare instances, the nest may also include two or three eggs laid by female helpers. All members of the group develop brood patches (a bare space on the breast with lots of blood vessels for warming the eggs). The chicks are ready to fledge 33 to 39 days after they hatch. They still need the group for food for two months after fledging.
Mascot of the Land Down Under
Australia is full of unique animals, but the laughing kookaburra must be one of the most well known. The bird prefers dry forests with streams but is also commonly found in backyards, parks, and gardens. Its natural range is eastern and southern Australia, but in 1897 it was introduced into the southwest corner of the continent and in 1905 into Tasmania, as well. Several attempts were made to import it into New Zealand, but a population only became established around the city of Auckland. Australians are proud of their famous bird: Olly the Kookaburra was one of three mascots for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.