Bird Watcher's General Store

Kookaburras - 02/01/08


Dear Bird Folks,

Last week you mentioned something about "Australia." That got me thinking about their national bird, the kookaburra. I'd like to see one someday. Are kookaburras only found in Australia, or are they also found in countries that may be easier for me to get to?

- Rick, Torrance, CA

Now, Rick,

I'm not one of those guys who likes to point out others' mistakes. Usually, I let mistakes slide by without comment. Oh, who am I kidding? I love pointing out mistakes. Finding a mistake is the main reason I chose to answer your question in the first place. Here's the deal: Australia has no "national bird." Unlike us with the Bald Eagle, the Australians have opted not to play favorites. Like a mother, they love all their birds the same and haven't singled out any one species as more special than any other. However, that was not the case with Australian Olympic Committee. They chose the kookaburra to be one of three mascots for 2000 summer Olympics. The other two mascots were the platypus and something called an "echidna." I'm not sure what that last one is, but I think it's some kind of body part. I'll look it up later.

Unfortunately, Rick, if you want to see a kookaburra you are going to have to do some traveling. There are four different species of kookaburras in the world and they all are found in Australia and New Guinea, and on an island in between those two locations. A few kookaburras have been introduced to New Zealand, but if you are going to go through all of the trouble to see one, you should go to where they are native. If not, you might as well save your money and take a day trip to the nearest zoo. And while you are there, ask someone what an echidna is. I'd kind of like to know.

Kookaburras are actually kingfishers...terrestrial kingfishers to be exact. They don't need water to dive into like our Belted Kingfisher does. They are more of a forest bird and can live anywhere that they can find food and tree cavities to nest in. The most famous of these terrestrial kingfishers is the Laughing Kookaburra. The Laughing Kookaburra is the world's largest kingfisher and my favorite. I like a bird with a good sense of humor. There are so few of them.

A kookaburra's diet consists of insects, lizards, and snakes, including poisonous snakes. That's a good bird. They also eat mice, which they often devour during one of Australia's famous mouse plagues. Until they figured out how to correct this problem, parts of Australia would regularly have to deal with a massive explosion of the local mice population. Sometimes rivers of hungry mice would invade area farms and would not only eat the crops, but actually eat the livestock, too. Now that's creepy. For you tech savvy people out there, punch up YouTube.com, do a search for "Australian mouse plague," and get ready to lift your feet off the floor. And I am not kidding.

Unlike our Belted Kingfisher, which seems to hate everybody it sees, the Laughing Kookaburra likes people. They will often hang around humans looking for scraps of meat. I once spent nearly an hour trying to sneak up on a kookaburra that was perched in a tree just outside of a restaurant. It was my first visit to Australia and I was determined to get a good picture of this stately bird. Just as I was about to take the picture, the restaurant door opened, a customer walked out and tossed the bird a hunk of meat, which it snapped out of the air like a beagle does when someone drops a cookie. I, Mr. Nature Boy, had just spent an hour trying to get close to a bird that wouldn't have flown away even if I poked it in the eye with my camera lens. Shows you what I know.

It is the voice of the Laughing Kookaburra that gives the bird its notoriety. Its loud, raucous call can be heard over great distances. The bird's call sounds like" koo-koo-koo-koo-koo-kaa-kaa-kaa" and you can quote me on that. The calls can be heard anytime of day, but they are most often heard at sunrise. The people of the Australian bush use them as a kind of poor man's alarm clock, or an even poorer man's rooster.

Kookaburras appear to mate for life. That's a quality that we humans seem to find endearing, even though many us have trouble doing it ourselves. They also have another human quality about them. Kookaburras tend to stay in small family groups. During the nesting season the parent birds are assisted in raising the young by "helper" birds. The helper birds are usually brothers and sisters from previous years.

Sorry to say, Rick, if you want to see wild kookaburras you are going to have to make the long flight to the land Down Under. Even though they aren't the national bird, they certainly are interesting birds to see. Just bring along a hunk of meat and the kookaburras will be lining up for you at the airport.



Artwork by Catherine Clark


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